Now and Then
Under the spring sun moves the innocent band
white-dressed, green garlanded, under the blue
bright sky, keeping their rhythm fairly true,
snaking in line or circle, hand in hand
between temple and altar and the crowd
of worshippers, the crowded offerings,
statues, tripods, the rest, to ringing strings
and high pipe, pretty and innocently proud.
But at such fêtes, that honour may be done
duly to deity, fine steers are brought;
and by the altar where they slashed the throat
blood stood in puddles, slopped on grass and stone.
The leader skirts these hazards. Several more
follow her skill. One, dreaming after these,
treads in the slippery mess, skids to her knees,
gets up, her dress and hands dripping with gore.
Red smears down her white skirt, the red of shame
hot in her face, friends giggling, crowd’s rude cracks
barking about her, the poor child makes tracks
out of the temenos. Outside she came
to silence—or rather to cicada-shrill
stillness, where thickly-bushed steep mountain-side
broke to a torrent summer had not yet dried.
On hard bare feet she hurried down the hill.
The maddened father, fed
by his own brother’s hate
his own children for meat,
learning the horror, fled
… night and day, day and night…
came to the Delphic fane,
burst in (uncleansed his stain)
crying on the Lord of Light
not to be purified
but to be shown the way
to vengeance—how repay?
The oracle replied:
“Vengeance condign may come
indeed, but it must grow
from seed yourself shall sow
in your own daughter’s womb.”
One horror makes another
easy, makes heart and mind
—a sword drawn on a mother,
a daughter’s innocence
perverted to a tool
His daughter, sent away
(the hospitable stranger
would hold her out of danger
against a happier day)
must now be coming on
her ripe, her bearing age.
Still in his cloud of rage
he came to Sicyon.
He heard the hum and buzz,
the shrilling and the twang,
snatches of what they sang,
“Goddess, be good to us”,
knew his polluted state
(the cloud a moment thinning)
—for that unwitting sinning
dared not approach the fête,
crept in the scrub below
the holy place. He lay
under the hot, bright day,
watched bright, cool water flow,
drowsing (he had not slept
nights, days) saw—in a dream?—
a girl come to the stream
and strip herself. He leapt
awake. The girl was there.
Slender and firm and white,
formed for a man’s delight,
lovely and unaware,
he watched her kneel and bend.
She turned her face. It all
—horror, lust, oracle—
flared to one hideous end.
She fought the hard sinews, the horribly
cloaked face she could not glimpse; but she was caught,
trapped, pinned on the rough bank; yet still she fought,
biting him, scratching him, and suddenly
this was a hilt her fingers fastened on.
Twisted, no purchase, she tugged pitifully,
and then at last the naked blade came free…
but he had done his business and was gone.
She sat a long time on the stony ground,
the naked sword across her naked thighs,
staring down at it with unseeing eyes.
Then she saw it, and knew it, and there found
a truth she dare not meet. Trembling and cold
she wrung the water from her blood-cleared dress,
sluiced her own dried blood from the aching place,
put the wet dress back on. She hid the sword,
seeming to hide her knowledge and his deed;
straightened herself, turned slowly, and still slow
made her way up the hill again, as though
heavy already with the vengeful seed.