By John Gardner
And if the Babe is born a Boy
He's given to a Woman Old,
Who nails him down upon a rock,
Catches his shrieks in cups of gold.
The old ram stands looking down over rockslides, stupidly triumphant.
I blink. I stare in horror. "Scat!" I hiss. "Go back to your cave, go
back to your cowshed--whatever." He cocks his head like an elderly,
slow-witted king, considers the angles, decides to ignore me. I stamp.
I hammer the ground with my fists. I hurl a skull-size stone at him.
He will not budge. I shake my two hairy fists at the sky and I let out
a howl so unspeakable that the water at my feet turns sudden ice and
even I myself am left uneasy. But the ram stays; the season is upon
us. And so begins the twelfth year of my idiotic war.
The pain of it! The stupidity!
"Ah, well," I sigh, and shrug, trudge back to the trees.
Do not think my brains are squeezed shut, like the ram's, by the roots
of horns. Flanks atremble, eyes like stones, he stares at as much of
the world as he can see and feels it surging in him, filling his chest
as the melting snow fills dried-out creekbeds, tickling his gross,
lopsided balls and charging his brains with the same unrest that made
him suffer last year at this time, and the year before, and the year
before that. (He's forgotten them all.) His hindparts shiver with the
usual joyful, mindless ache to mount whatever happens near--the storm
piling up black towers to the west, some rotting, docile stump, some
spraddle-legged ewe. I cannot bear to look. "Why can't these creatures
discover a little dignity?" I ask the sky. The sky says nothing,
predictably. I make a face, uplift a defiant middle finger, I and give
an obscene little kick. The sky ignores me, forever unimpressed. Him
too I hate, the same as I hate these brainless budding trees, these
brattling birds.
Not, of course, that I fool myself with thoughts that I'm more noble.
Pointless, ridiculous monster crouched in the shadows, stinking of
dead men, murdered children, martyred cows. (I am neither proud nor
ashamed, understand. One more dull victim, leering at seasons that
never were meant to be observed.) "Ah, sad one, poor old freak!" I
cry, and hug myself, and laugh, letting out salt tears, he he! till I
fall down gasping and sobbing. (It's mostly fake.) The sun spins
mindlessly overhead, the shadows lengthen and shorten as if by plan.
Small birds, with a high-pitched yelp, lay eggs. The tender grasses
peek up, innocent yellow, through the ground: the children of the
dead. (It was just here, this shocking green, that once when the moon
was tombed in clouds, I tore off sly old Athelgard's head. Here, where
the startling tiny jaws of crocuses snap at the late-winter sun like
the heads of baby watersnakes, here I killed the old woman with the
irongray hair. She tasted of urine and spleen, which made me spit.
Sweet mulch for yellow blooms. Such are the tiresome memories of a
shadow-shooter, earth-rim-roamer, walker of the world's weird wall.)
"Waaah!" I cry, with another quick, nasty face at the sky, mournfully
observing the way it is, bitterly remembering the way it was, and
idiotically casting tomorrow's nets. "Aargh! Yaww!" I reel, smash
trees. Disfigured son of lunatics. The big-boled oaks gaze down at me
yellow with morning, beneath complexity. "No offense," I say, with a
terrible, sycophantish smile, and tip an imaginary hat.
It was not always like this, of course. On occasion it's been worse.
No matter, no matter.
The doe in the clearing goes stiff at sight of my horridness, then
remembers her legs and is gone. It makes me cross. "Blind prejudice!"
I bawl at the splintered sunlight where half a second ago she stood. I
wring my lingers, put on a long face. "Ah, the unfairness of
everything," I say, and shake my head. It is a matter of fact that I
have never killed a deer in all my life, and never will. Cows have
more meat and, locked up in pens, are easier to catch. It is true,
perhaps, that I feel some trifling dislike of deer, but no more
dislike than I feel for other natural things--discounting men. But
deer, like rabbits and bears and even men, can make, concerning my
race, no delicate distinctions. That is their happiness: they see all
life without observing it. They're buried in it like crabs in mud.
Except men, of course. I am not in a mood, just yet, to talk of men.
So it goes with me day by day and age by age, I tell myself. Locked in
the deadly progression of moon and stars. I shake my head, muttering
darkly on shaded paths, holding conversation with the only friend and
comfort this world affords, my shadow. Wild pigs clatter away through
brush. A baby bird falls feet-up in my path, squeaking. With a crabby
laugh, I let him lie, kind heaven's merciful bounty to some sick fox.
So it goes with me, age by age. (Talking, talking. Spinning a web of
words, pale walls of dreams, between myself and all I see.)
The first grim stirrings of springtime come (as I knew they must,
having seen the ram), and even under the ground where I live, where no
light breaks but the red of my fires and nothing stirs but the
flickering shadows on my wet rock walls, or scampering rats on my
piles of bones, or my mother's fat, foul bulk rolling over, restless
again--molested by nightmares, old memories--I am aware in my chest of
tuberstirrings in the blacksweet duff of the forest overhead. I feel
my anger coming back, building up like invisible fire, and at last,
when my soul can no longer resist, I go up--as mechanical as anything
else--fists clenched against my lack of will, my belly growling,
mindless as wind, for blood. I swim up through the firesnakes, hot
dark whalecocks prowling the luminous green of the mere, and I surface
with a gulp among churning waves and smoke. I crawl up onto the bank
and catch my breath.
It's good at first to be out in the night, naked to the cold mechanics
of the stars. Space hurls outward, falconswift, mounting like an
irreversible injustice, a final disease. The cold night air is reality
at last: indifferent to me as a stone face carved on a high cliff wall
to show that the world is abandoned. So childhood too feels good at
first, before one happens to notice the terrible sameness, age after
age. I lie there resting in the steaming grass, the old lake hissing
and gurgling behind me, whispering patterns of words my sanity
resists. At last, heavy as an ice-capped mountain, I rise and work my
way to the inner wall, beginning of wolfslopes, the edge of my realm.
I stand in the high wind balanced, blackening the night with my
stench, gazing down to cliffs that fall away to cliffs, and once again
I am aware of my potential: I could die. I cackle with rage and suck
in breath.
"Dark chasms!" I scream from the cliff-edge, "seize me! Seize me to
your foul black bowels and crush my bones!" I am terrified at the
sound of my own huge voice in the darkness. I stand there shaking from
head to foot, moved to the deep-sea depths of my being, like a
creature thrown into audience with thunder.
At the same time, I am secretly unfooled. The uproar is only my own
shriek, and chasms are, like all things vast, inanimate. They will not
snatch me in a thousand years, unless, in a lunatic fit of religion, I
I sigh, depressed, and grind my teeth. I toy with shouting some tidbit
more--some terrifying, unthinkable threat, some blackly fuliginous
riddling hex--but my heart's not in it. "Missed me!" I say with a coy
little jerk and a leer, to keep my spirits up. Then, with a sigh, a
kind of moan, I start very carefully down the cliffs that lead to the
fens and moors and Hrothgar's hall. Owls cross my path as silently as
raiding ships, and at the sound of my foot, lean wolves rise, glance
at me awkwardly, and, neat of step as lizards, sneak away. I used to
take some pride in that--the caution of owls when my shape looms in,
the alarm I stir in these giant northern wolves. I was younger then.
Still playing cat and mouse with the universe.
I move down through the darkness, burning with murderous lust, my
brains raging at the sickness I can observe in myself as objectively
as might a mind ten centuries away. Stars, spattered out through
lifeless night from end to end, like jewels scattered in a dead king's
grave, tease, torment my wits toward meaningful patterns that do not
exist. I can see for miles from these rock walls: thick forest
suddenly still at my coming-cowering stags, wolves, hedgehogs, boars,
submerged in their stifling, unmemorable fear; mute birds, pulsating,
thoughtless clay in hushed old trees, thick limbs interlocked to seal
drab secrets in.
I sigh, sink into the silence, and cross it like wind. Behind my back,
at the world's end, my pale slightly glowing fat mother sleeps on,
old, sick at heart, in our dingy underground room. Life-bloated,
baffled, long-suffering hag. Guilty, she imagines, of some
unremembered, perhaps ancestral crime. (She must have some human in
her.) Not that she thinks. Not that she dissects and ponders the dusty
mechanical bits of her miserable life's curse. She clutches at me in
her sleep as if to crush me. I break away. "Why are we here?" I used
to ask her. "Why do we stand this putrid, stinking hole ?" She
trembles at my words. Her fat lips shake. "Don't ask!" her wiggling
claws implore. (She never speaks.) "Don't ask!" It must be some
terrible secret, I used to think. I'd give her a crafty squint. She'll
tell me, in time, I thought. But she told me nothing. I waited on.
That was before the old dragon, calm as winter, unveiled the truth. He
was not a friend.
And so I come through trees and towns to the lights of Hrothgar's
meadhall. I am no stranger here. A respected guest. Eleven years now
and going on twelve I have come up this clean-mown central hill, dark
shadow out of the woods below, and have knocked politely on the high
oak door, bursting its hinges and sending the shock of my greeting
inward like a cold blast out of a cave. "Grendel!" they squeak, and I
smile like exploding spring. The old Shaper, a man I cannot help but
admire, goes out the back window with his harp at a single bound,
though blind as a bat. The drunkest of Hrothgar's thanes come reeling
and clanking down from their wall-hung beds, all shouting their meady,
outrageous boasts, their heavy swords aswirl like eagles' wings. "Woe,
woe, woe!" cries Hrothgar, hoary with winters, peeking in, wide-eyed,
from his bedroom in back. His wife, looking in behind him, makes a
scene. The thanes in the meadhall blow out the lights and cover the
wide stone fireplace with shields. I laugh, crumple over; I can't help
myself. In the darkness, I alone see clear as day. While they squeal
and screech and bump into each other, I silently sack up my dead and
withdraw to the woods. I eat and laugh and eat until I can barely
walk, my chest-hair matted with dribbled blood, and then the roosters
on the hill crow, and dawn comes over the roofs of the houses, and all
at once I am filled with gloom again.
"This is some punishment sent us," I hear them bawling from the hill.
My head aches. Morning nails my eyes.
"Some god is angry," I hear a woman keen. "The people of Scyld and
Herogar and Hrothgar are mired in sin!"
My belly rumbles, sick on their sour meat. I crawl through
bloodstained leaves to the eaves of the forest, and there peak out.
The dogs fall silent at the edge of my spell, and where the king's
hall surmounts the town, the blind old Shaper, harp clutched tight to
his fragile chest, stares futilely down, straight at me. Otherwise
nothing. Pigs root dully at the posts of a wooden fence. A
rumple-horned ox lies chewing in dew and shade. A few men, lean,
wearing animal skins, look up at the gables of the king's hall, or at
the vultures circling casually beyond. Hrothgar says nothing,
hoarfrost-bearded, his features cracked and crazed. Inside, I hear the
people praying--whimpering, whining, mumbling, pleading--to their
numerous sticks and stones. He doesn't go in. The king has lofty
theories of his own.
"Theories," I whisper to the bloodstained ground. So the dragon once
spoke. ("They'd map out roads through Hell with their crackpot
theories!" I recall his laugh.)
Then the groaning and praying stop, and on the side of the hill the
dirge-slow shoveling begins. They throw up a mound for the funeral
pyre, for whatever arms or legs or heads my haste has left behind.
Meanwhile, up in the shattered hall, the builders are hammering,
replacing the door for (it must be) the fiftieth or sixtieth time,
industrious and witless as worker ants--except that they make small,
foolish changes, adding a few more iron pegs, more iron bands, with
tireless dogmatism.
Now fire. A few little lizard tongues, then healthy flames reaching up
through the tangled nest of sticks. (A feeble-minded crow could have
fashioned a neater nest.) A severed leg swells up and bursts, then an
arm, then another, and the red fire turns on the blackening flesh and
makes it sizzle, and it reaches higher, up and up into greasy smoke,
turning, turning like falcons at warplay, rushing like circling wolves
up into the swallowing, indifferent sky. And now, by some lunatic
theory, they throw on golden rings, old swords, and braided helmets.
They wail, the whole crowd, women and men, a kind of song, like a
single quavering voice. The song rings up like the greasy smoke and
their faces shine with sweat and something that looks like joy. The
song swells, pushes through woods and sky, and they're singing now as
if by some lunatic theory they had won. I shake with rage. The red sun
blinds me, churns up my belly to nausea, and the heat thrown out of
the bone-fire burns my skin. I cringe, clawing my flesh, and flee for
Talking, talking, spinning a spell, pale skin of words that closes me
in like a coffin. Not in a language that anyone any longer
understands. Rushing, degenerate mutter of noises I send out before me
wherever I creep, like a dragon burning his way through vines and fog.
I used to play games when I was young--it might as well be a thousand
years ago. Explored our far-flung underground world in an endless
wargame of leaps onto nothing, ingenious twists into freedom or new
perplexity, quick whispered plottings with invisible friends, wild
cackles when vengeance was mine. I nosed out, in my childish games,
every last shark-toothed chamber and hall, every black tentacle of my
mother's cave, and so came at last, adventure by adventure, to the
pool of firesnakes. I stared, mouth gaping. They were gray as old
ashes; faceless, eyeless. They spread the surface of the water with
pure green flame. I knew--I seemed to have known all along--that the
snakes were there to guard something. Inevitably, after I'd stood
there a while, rolling my eyes back along the dark hallway, my ears
cocked for my mother's step, I screwed my nerve up and dove. The
firesnakes scattered as if my flesh were charmed. And so I discovered
the sunken door, and so I came up, for the first time, to moonlight.
I went no farther, that first night. But I came out again, inevitably.
I played my way farther out into the world, vast cavern aboveground,
cautiously darting from tree to tree challenging the terrible forces
of night on tiptoe. At dawn I fled back.
I lived those years, as do all young things, in a spell. Like a puppy
nipping, playfully growling preparing for battle with wolves. At times
the spell would be broken suddenly: on shelves or in hallways of my
mother's cave, large old shapes with smouldering eyes sat watching me.
A continuous grumble came out of their mouths'; their backs were
humped. Then little by little it dawned on me that the eyes that
seemed to bore into my body were in fact gazing through it, wearily
indifferent to my slight obstruction of the darkness. Of all the
creatures I knew, in those days, only my mother really looked at
me.--Stared at me as if to consume me, like a troll. She loved me, in
some mysterious sense I understood without her speaking it. I was her
creation. We were one thing, like the wall and the rock growing out
from it.--Or so I ardently, desperately affirmed. When her strange
eyes burned into me, it did not seem quite sure. I was intensely aware
of where I sat, the volume of darkness I displaced, the shiny-smooth
span of packed dirt between us, and the shocking separateness from me
in my mama's eyes. I would feel, all at once, alone and ugly,
almost--as if I'd dirtied myself--obscene. The cavern river rumbled
far below us. Being young, unable to face these things, I would bawl
and hurl myself at my mother and she would reach out her claws and
seize me, though I could see I alarmed her (I had teeth like a saw),
and she would smash me to her fat, limp breast as if to make me a part
of her flesh again. After that, comforted, I would gradually ease back
out into my games. Crafty-eyed, wicked as an elderly wolf, I would
scheme with or stalk my imaginary friends, projecting the self I meant
to become into every dark corner of the cave and the woods above.
Then all at once there they'd be again, the indifferent, burning eyes
of the strangers. Or my mother's eyes. Again my world would be
suddenly transformed, fixed like a rose with a nail through it, space
hurtling coldly out from me in all directions. But I didn't
One morning I caught my foot in the crack where two old treetrunks
joined. "Owp!" I yelled. "Mama! Waa!" I was out much later than I'd
meant to be. As a rule I was back in the cave by dawn, but that day
I'd been lured out farther than usual by the heavenly scent of newborn
calf--ah, sweeter than flowers, as sweet as my mama's milk. I looked
at the foot in anger and disbelief. It was wedged deep, as if the two
oak trees were eating it. Black sawdust--squirreldust--was spattered
up the leg almost to the thigh. I'm not sure now how the accident
happened. I must have pushed the two boles apart as I stepped up into
the place where they joined, and then when I stupidly let go again
they closed on my foot like a trap. Blood gushed from my ankle and
shin, and pain flew up through me like fire up the flue of a mountain.
I lost my head. I bellowed for help, so loudly it made the ground
shake. "Mama! Waa! Waaa!" I bellowed to the sky, the forest, the
cliffs, until I was so weak from loss of blood I could barely wave my
arms. "I'm going to die," I wailed. "Poor Grendel! Poor old Mama!" I
wept and sobbed. "Poor Grendel will hang here and starve to death," I
told myself, "and no one will ever even miss him!" The thought enraged
me. I hooted. I thought of my mother's foreign eyes, staring at me
from across the room: I thought of the cool, indifferent eyes of the
others. I shrieked in fear; still no one came.
The sun was up now, and even filtered as it was through the lacy young
leaves, it made my head hurt. I twisted around as far as I could,
hunting wildly for her shape on the cliffs, but there was nothing, or,
rather, there was everything but my mother. Thing after thing tried,
cynical and cruel, to foist itself off as my mama's shape--a black
rock balanced at the edge of the cliff, a dead tree casting a
long-armed shadow, a running stag, a cave entrance--each thing trying
to detach itself, lift itself out of the general meaningless scramble
of objects, but falling back, melting to the blank, infuriating
clutter of not-my-mother. My heart began to race. I seemed to see the
whole universe, even the sun and sky, leaping forward, then sinking
away again, decomposing. Everything was wreckage, putrefaction. If she
were there, the cliffs, the brightening sky, the trees, the stag, the
waterfall would suddenly snap into position around her, sane again,
well organized; but she was not, and the morning was crazy. Its green
brilliance jabbed at me, live needles.
"Please, Mama!" I sobbed as if heartbroken.
Then, some thirty feet away, there was a bull. He stood looking at me
with his head lowered, and the world snapped into position around him,
as if in league with him. I must have been closer to the calf than I
had guessed, since he'd arrived to protect it. Bulls do such things,
though they don't even know that the calves they defend are theirs. He
shook his horns at me, as if scornful. I trembled. On the ground, on
two good feet, I would have been more than a match for the bull, or if
not, I could have outrun him. But I was four or five feet up in the
air, trapped and weak. He could slam me right out of the tree with one
blow of that boned, square head, maybe tearing the foot off, and then
he could gore me to death at his leisure in the grass. He pawed the
ground, looking at me up-from-under, murderous. "Go away!" I said.
"Hssst!" It had no effect. I bellowed at him. He jerked his head as if
the sound were a boulder I'd thrown at him, but then he merely stood
considering, and, after a minute, he pawed the ground again. Again I
bellowed. This time he hardly noticed it. He snorted through his nose
and pawed more deeply, spattering grass and black earth at his sharp
rear hooves. As if time had slowed down as it does for the dying, I
watched him loll his weight forward, sliding into an easy lope, head
tilted, coming toward me in a casual arc. He picked up speed, throwing
his weight onto his huge front shoulders, crooked tail lifted behind
him like a flag. When I screamed, he didn't even flick an ear but came
on, driving like an avalanche now, thunder booming from his hooves
across the cliffs. The same instant he struck my tree he jerked his
head and flame shot up my leg. The tip of one horn had torn me to the
But that was all. The tree shuddered as he banged it with his skull,
and he pivoted around it, stumbling. He gave his head a jerk, as if
clearing his brains, then turned and loped back to where he'd charged
me from before. He'd struck too low, and even in my terror I
understood that he would always strike too low: he fought by instinct,
blind mechanism ages old. He'd have fought the same way against an
earthquake or an eagle: I had nothing to fear from his wrath but that
twisting horn. The next time he charged I kept my eye on it, watched
that horn with as much concentration as I'd have watched the rims of a
crevasse I was leaping, and at just the right instant I flinched.
Nothing touched me but the breeze as the horn flipped past.
I laughed. My ankle was numb now; my leg was on fire to the hip. I
twisted to search the cliffwalls again, but still my mother wasn't
there, and my laughter grew fierce. All at once, as if by sudden
vision, I understood the emptiness in the eyes of those humpbacked
shapes back in the cave. (Were they my brothers, my uncles, those
creatures shuffling brimstone-eyed from room to room, or sitting
separate, isolated, muttering forever like underground rivers, each in
his private, inviolable gloom?)
I understood that the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual,
brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears. I
understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist. All the rest,
I saw, is merely what pushes me, or what I push against, blindly--as
blindly as all that is not myself pushes back. I create the whole
universe, blink by blink.--An ugly god pitifully dying in a tree!
The bull struck again. I flinched from the horntip and bellowed with
rage and pain. The limbs overhead, stretching out through the clearing
like hungry snakes reaching up from their nest, would be clubs if I
had them in my two hands, or barricades, piled between me and my cave,
or kindling down in the room where my mother and I slept. Where they
were, above me, they were--what? Kind shade? I laughed. A tearful
The bull kept on charging. Sometimes after he hit he'd fall down and
lie panting. I grew limp with my anarchistic laughter. I no longer
bothered to jerk back my leg. Sometimes the horntip tore it, sometimes
not. I clung to the treetrunk that slanted 0H to my right, and I
almost slept. Perhaps I did sleep, I don't know. I must have. Nothing
mattered. Sometime in the middle of the afternoon I opened my eyes and
discovered that the bull was gone.
I slept again, I think. When I woke up this time and looked up through
the leaves overhead, there were vultures. I sighed, indifferent. I was
growing used to the pain, or it had lessened. Unimportant. I tried to
see myself from the vultures' viewpoint. I saw, instead, my mother's
eyes. Consuming. I was suddenly her focus of the general
meaninglessness--not for myself, not for any quality of my large,
shaggy body or my sly, unnatural mind. I was, in her eyes, some
meaning I myself could never know and might not care to know: an
alien, the rock broken free of the wall. I slept again.
That night, for the first time, I saw men.
It was dark when I awakened--or when I came to, if it was that. I was
aware at once that there was something wrong. There was no sound, not
even the honk of a frog or the chirp of a cricket. There was a smell,
a fire very different from ours, pungent, painful as thistles to the
nose. I opened my eyes and everything was blurry, as though
underwater. There were lights all around me, like some weird
creature's eyes. They jerked back as I looked. Then voices, speaking
words. The sounds were foreign at first, but when I calmed myself,
concentrating, I found I understood them: it was my own language, but
spoken in a strange way, as if the sounds were made by brittle sticks,
dried spindles, flaking bits of shale. My vision cleared and I saw
them, mounted on horses, holding torches up. Some of them had shiny
domes (as it seemed to me then) with horns coming out, like the
bull's. They were small, these creatures, with dead-looking eyes and
gray-white faces, and yet in some ways they were like us, except
ridiculous and, at the same time, mysteriously irritating, like rats.
Their movements were stiff and regular, as if figured by logic. They
had skinny, naked hands that moved by clicks. When I first became
aware of them, they were all speaking at the same time. I tried to
move, but my body was rigid; only one hand gave a jerk. They all
stopped speaking at the same instant, like sparrows. We stared at each
One of them said--a tall one with a long black beard--"It moves
independent of the tree."
They nodded.
The tall one said, "It's a growth of some kind, that's my opinion.
Some beastlike fungus." .
They all looked up into the branches.
A short, fat one with a tangled white beard pointed up into the tree
with an ax. "Those branches on the northern side are all dead there.
No doubt the whole tree'll be dead before midsummer. It's always the
north side goes first when there ain't enough sap."
They nodded, and another one said, "See there where it grows up out of
the trunk? Sap running all over."
They leaned over the sides of their horses to look, pushing the
torches toward me. The horses' eyes glittered.
"Have to close that up if we're going to save this tree," the tall one
said. The others grunted, and the tall one looked up at my eyes,
uneasy. I couldn't move. He stepped down off the horse and came over
to me, so close I could have swung my hand and smashed his head if I
could make my muscles move. "It's like blood," he said, and made a
Two of the others got down and came over to pull at their noses and
"I say that tree's a goner," one of them said.
They all nodded, except the tall one. "We can't just leave it rot," he
said. "Start letting the place go to ruin and you know what the
upshot'll be."
They nodded. The others got down off their horses and came over. The
one with the tangled white beard said, "Maybe we could chop the fungus
They thought about it. After a while the tall one shook his head. "I
don't know. Could be it's some kind of a oaktree spirit. Better not to
mess with it."
They looked uneasy. There was a hairless, skinny one with eyes like
two holes. He stood with his arms out, like a challenged bird, and he
kept moving around in jerky little circles, bent forward, peering at
everything, at the tree, at the woods around, up into my eyes. Now
suddenly he nodded. "That's it! King's right! It's a spirit!"
"You think so?" they said. Their heads poked forward.
"Sure of it," he said.
"Is it friendly, you think?" the king said.
The hairless one peered up at me with the fingertips of one hand in
his mouth. The skinny elbow hung straight down, as if he were leaning
on an invisible table while he thought the whole thing through. His
black little eyes stared straight into mine, as if waiting for me to
tell him something. I tried to speak. My mouth moved, but nothing
would come out. The little man jerked back. "He's hungry!" he said.
"Hungry!" they all said. "What does he eat?"
He looked at me again. His tiny eyes drilled into me and he was
crouched as if he were thinking of trying to jump up into my brains.
My heart thudded. I was so hungry I could eat a rock. He smiled
suddenly, as if a holy vision had exploded in his head. "He eats pig!"
he said. He looked doubtful. "Or maybe pigsmoke. He's in a period of
They all looked at me, thinking it over, then nodded.
The king picked out six men. "Go get the thing some pigs," he said.
The six men said "Yes sir!" and got on their horses and rode off. It
filled me with joy, though it was all crazy, and before I knew I could
do it, I laughed. They jerked away and stood shaking, looking up.
"The spirit's angry," one of them whispered.
"It always has been," another one said. "That's why it's killing the
"No, no, you're wrong," the hairless one said. "It's' yelling for
"Pig!" I tried to yell. It scared them.
They all began shouting at each other. One of the horses neighed and
reared up, and for some crazy reason they took it for a sign. The king
snatched an ax from the man beside him and, without any warning, he
hurled it at me. I twisted, letting out a howl, and it shot past my
shoulder, just barely touching my skin. Blood trickled out.
"You're all crazy," I tried to yell, but it came out a moan. I
bellowed for my mother.
"Surround him!" the king yelled, "Save the horses!"--and suddenly I
knew I was dealing with no dull mechanical bull but with thinking
creatures, pattern makers, the most dangerous things I'd ever met. I
shrieked at them, trying to scare them off, but they merely ducked
behind bushes and took long sticks from the saddles of their horses,
bows and javelins. "You're all crazy," I bellowed, "you're all
insane!" I'd never howled more loudly in my life. Darts like hot coals
went through my legs and arms and I howled more loudly still. And
then, just when I was sure I was finished, a shriek ten times as loud
as mine came blaring off the cliff. It was my mother! She came roaring
down like thunder, screaming like a thousand hurricanes, eyes as
bright as dragonfire, and before she was within a mile of us, the
creatures had leaped to their horses and galloped away. Big trees
shattered and fell from her path; the earth trembled. Then her smell
poured in like blood into a silver cup, filling the moonlit clearing
to the brim, and I felt the two trees that held me falling, and I was
tumbling, free, into the grass.
I woke up in the cave, warm firelight flickering on walls. My mother
lay picking through the bone pile. When she heard me stir, she turned,
wrinkling her forehead, and looked at me. There were no other shapes.
I think I dimly understood even then that they'd gone deeper into
darkness, away from men. I tried to tell her all that had happened,
all that I'd come to understand: the meaningless objectness of the
world, the universal bruteness. She only stared, troubled at my noise.
She'd forgotten all language long ago, or maybe had never known any.
I'd never heard her speak to the other shapes. (How I myself learned
to speak I can't remember; it was a long, long time ago.) But I talked
on, trying to smash through the walls of her unconsciousness. "The
world resists me and I resist the world," I said. "That's all there
is. The mountains are what I define them as." Ah, monstrous stupidity
of childhood, unreasonable hope! I waken with a start and see it over
again (in my cave, out walking, or sitting by the mere), the memory
rising as if it has been pursuing me. The fire in my mother's eyes
brightens and she reaches out as if some current is tearing us apart.
"The world is all pointless accident," I say. Shouting now, my fists
clenched. "I exist, nothing else." Her face works. She gets up on all
fours, brushing dry bits of bone from her path, and, with a look of
terror, rising as if by unnatural power, she hurls herself across the
void and buries me in her bristly fur and fat. I sicken with fear. "My
mother's fur is bristly," I say to myself. "Her flesh is loose."
Buried under my mother I cannot see. She smells of wild pig and fish.
"My mother smells of wild pig and fish," I say. What I see I inspire
with usefulness, I think, trying to suck in breath, and all that I do
not see is useless, void. I observe myself observing what I observe.
It startles me. "Then I am not that which observes!" I am lack.
Alack! No thread, no frailest hair between myself and the universal
clutter! I listen to the underground river. I have never seen it.
Talking, talking, spinning a skin, a skin...
I can't breathe, and I claw to get free. She struggles. I smell my
mama's blood and, alarmed, I hear from the walls and floor of the cave
the booming, booming, of her heart.
It wasn't because he threw that battle-ax that I turned on Hrothgar.
That was mere midnight foolishness. I dismissed it, thought of it
afterward only as you remember a tree that fell on you or an adder you
stepped on by accident, except of course that Hrothgar was more to be
feared than a tree or snake. It wasn't until later, when I was
full-grown and Hrothgar was an old, old man, that I settled my soul on
destroying him--slowly and cruelly. Except for his thanes' occasional
stories of seeing my footprints, he'd probably forgotten by then that
I existed.
He'd been busy. I'd watched it all from the eaves of the forest,
mostly from up off the ground, in the branches.
In the beginning there were various groups of them: ragged little
bands that roamed the forest on foot or horseback, crafty-witted
killers that worked in teams, hunting through the summer, shivering in
caves or little huts in the winter, occasionally wandering out into
the snow to plow through it slowly, clumsily, after more meat. Ice
clung to their eyebrows and beards and eyelashes, and I'd hear them
whining and groaning as they walked. When two hunters from different
bands came together in the woods, they would fight until the snow was
slushy with blood, then crawl back, gasping and crying, to their
separate camps to tell wild tales of what happened.
As the bands grew larger, they would seize and clear a hill and, with
the trees they'd cut, would set up shacks, and on the crown of the
hill a large, shaggy house with a steeply pitched roof and a wide
stone hearth, where they'd all go at night for protection from other
bands of men. The inside walls would be beautifully painted and hung
with tapestries, and every cross-timber or falcon's perch was carved
and gewgawed with toads, snakes, dragon shapes, deer, cows, pigs,
trees, trolls. At the first sign of spring they would set out their
shrines and scatter seeds on the sides of the hill, below the shacks,
and would put , up wooden fences to pen their pigs and cows. The women
worked the ground and milked and fed the animals while the men hunted,
and when the men came in from the wolf-roads at dusk, the women would
cook the game they'd caught while the men went inside and drank mead.
Then they'd all eat, the men first, then the women and children, the
men still drinking, getting louder and braver, talking about what they
were going to do to the bands on the other hills. I would huddle,
listening to their noise in the darkness, my eyebrows lifted, my lips
pursed, the hair on the back of my neck standing up like pigs'
bristles. All the bands did the same thing. In time I began to be more
amused than revolted by what they threatened. It didn't matter to me
what they did to each other. It was slightly ominous because of its
strangeness--no wolf was so vicious to other wolves--but I half
believed they weren't serious.
They would listen to each other at the meadhall tables, their pinched,
cunning rats' faces picking like needles at the boaster's words, the
warfalcons gazing down, black, from the rafters, and when one of them
finished his raving threats, another would stand up and lift up his
ram's horn, or draw his sword, or sometimes both if he was very drunk,
and he'd tell them what he planned to do. Now and then some trivial
argument would break out, and one of them would kill another one, and
all the others would detach themselves from the killer as neatly as
blood clotting, and they'd consider the case and they'd either excuse
him, for some reason, or else send him out to the forest to live by
stealing from their outlying pens like a wounded fox. At
times I would try to befriend the exile, at other times I would try to
ignore him, but they were treacherous. In the end, I had to eat them.
As a rule, though, that wasn't how all their drinking turned out.
Normally the men would howl out their daring, and the evening would
get merrier, louder and louder, the king praising this one,
criticizing that one, no one getting hurt except maybe some female who
was asking for it, and eventually they'd all fall asleep on each other
like lizards, and I'd steal a cow.
But the threats were serious. Darting unseen from camp to camp, I
observed a change come over their drunken boasts. It was late spring.
Food was plentiful. Every sheep and goat had its wobbly twins, the
forest was teeming, and the first crops of the hillsides were coming
into fruit. A man would roar, "I'll steal their gold and burn their
meadhall!" shaking his sword as if the tip were afire, and a man with
eyes like two pins would say, "Do it now, Cowface! I think you're not
even the man your father was!" The people would laugh. I would back
away into the darkness, furious at my stupid need to spy on them, and
I would glide to the next camp of men, and I'd hear the same. Then
once, around midnight, I came to a hall in ruins. The cows in their
pens lay burbling blood through their nostrils, with javelin holes in
their necks. None had been eaten. The watchdogs lay like dark wet
stones, with their heads cut off, teeth bared. The fallen hall was a
square of flames and acrid smoke, and the people inside (none of them
had been eaten either) were burned black, small, like dwarfs turned
dark and crisp. The sky opened like a hole where the gables had loomed
before, and the wooden benches, the trestle tables, the beds that had
hung on the meadhall walls were scattered to the edge of the forest,
shining charcoal. There was no sign of the gold they'd kept--not so
much as a melted hilt.
Then the wars began, and the war songs, and the weapon making. If the
songs were true, as I suppose at least one or two of them were, there
had always been wars, and what I'd seen was merely a period of mutual
I'd be watching a meadhall from high in a tree, nightbirds singing in
the limbs below me, the moon's face hidden in a tower of clouds, and
nothing would be stirring except leaves moving in the light spring
breeze and, down by the pigpens, two men walking with their
battle-axes and their dogs. Inside the hall I would hear the Shaper
telling of the glorious deeds of dead kings--how they'd split certain
heads, snuck away with certain precious swords and necklaces--his harp
mimicking the rush of swords, clanging boldly with the noble speeches,
sighing behind the heroes' dying words. Whenever he stopped, thinking
up formulas for what to say next, the people would all shout and thump
each other and drink to the Shaper's long life. In the shadow of the
hall and by the outbuildings,
men sat whistling or humming to themselves, repairing weapons: winding
bronze bands around gray ashspears, treating their swordblades with
snake's venom, watching the goldworker decorate the handles of
battle-axes. (The goldworkers had an honored place. I remember one of
them especially: a lean, aloof, superior man of middle age. He never
spoke to the others except to laugh sometimes--"Nyeh heh heh.")
Then suddenly the birds below me in the tree would fall silent, and
beyond the meadhall clearing I'd hear the creak of harness-leather.
The watchmen and their dogs would stand stock-still, as if
lightning-struck; then the dogs would bark, and the next instant the
door would bang open and men would come tumbling, looking crazy, from
the meadhall. The enemies' horses would thunder up into the clearing,
leaping the pig-fences, sending the cows and the pigs away mooing and
squealing, and the two bands of men would charge. Twenty feet apart
they would slide to a stop and stand screaming at each other with
raised swords. The leaders on both sides held their javelins high in
both hands and shook them, howling their lungs out. Terrible threats,
from the few words I could catch. Things about their fathers and their
fathers' fathers, things about justice and honor and lawful
revenge--their throats swollen, their eyes rolling like a newborn
colt's, sweat running down their shoulders. Then they would fight.
Spears flying, swords whonking, arrows raining from the windows and
doors of the meadhall and the edge of the woods. Horses reared and
fell over screaming, ravens flew, crazy as bats in a {ire, men
staggered, gesturing wildly, making speeches, dying or sometimes
pretending to be dying, sneaking off. Sometimes the attackers would be
driven back, sometimes they'd win and burn the meadhall down,
sometimes they'd capture the king of the meadhall and make his people
give weapons and gold rings and cows.
It was confusing and frightening, not in a way I could untangle. I was
safe in my tree, and the men who fought were nothing to me, except of
course that they talked in something akin to my language, which meant
that we were, incredibly, related. I was sickened, if only at the
waste of it: all they killed--cows, horses, men--they left to rot or
burn. I sacked all I could and tried to store it, but my mother would
growl and make faces because of the stink.
The fighting went on all that summer and began again the next and
again the next. Sometimes when a meadhall burned, the survivors would
go to another meadhall and, stretching out their hands, would crawl
unarmed up the strangers' hill and would beg to be taken in. They
would give the strangers whatever weapons or pigs or cattle they'd
saved from destruction, and the strangers would give them an
outbuilding, the worst of their food, and some straw. The two groups
would Fight as allies after that, except that now and then they
betrayed each other, one shooting the other from behind for some
reason, or stealing the other group's gold, some midnight, or sneaking
into bed with the other group's wives and daughters.
I watched it, season after season. Sometimes I watched from the high
cliff wall, where I could look out and see all the meadhall lights on
the various hills across the countryside, glowing like candles,
reflected stars. With luck, I might see, on a soft summer night, as
many as three halls burning down at once. That was rare, of course. It
grew rarer as the pattern of their warring changed. Hrothgar, who'd
begun hardly stronger than the others, began to outstrip the rest.
He'd worked out a theory about what fighting was for, and now he no
longer fought with his six closest neighbors. He'd shown them the
strength of his organization, and now, instead of making war on them,
he sent men to them every three months or so, with heavy wagons and
back-slings, to gather their tribute to his greatness. They piled his
wagons high with gold and leather and weapons, and they kneeled to his
messengers and made long speeches and promised to defend him against
any foolhardy outlaw that dared to attack him. Hrothgar's A messengers
answered with friendly words and praise of the man they'd just
plundered, as if the whole thing had been his idea, then whipped up
the oxen, pulled up their loaded back-slings, and started home. It was
a hard trip. The tall, silky grass of the meadows and the paths along
the forest would clog the heavy wagon spokes and snarl the oxen's
hooves; wagon wheels sunk in the rich black earth that only the wind
had ever yet seeded or harvested. The oxen rolled their eyes,
floundering, and mooed. Men swore. They pushed at the wheels with long
oak poles and slashed at the oxen till their backs were crosshatched
with bleeding welts and their noses ran pink foam. Sometimes with one
terrific heave, an ox would break free of the traces and plunge into
the brush. A man on a horse would go after it, slashed by branches,
cutting through tangles of hazel and hawthorn, his horse balking at
the pain of thorns, and sometimes when the man found the ox he would
fill it with arrows and leave it to the wolves. Sometimes he merely
sat, when he found the ox, and met its stupid, gloomy eyes and wept.
Sometimes a horse, mired to the waist, would give up and merely stand,
head hanging, as if waiting for death, and the men would howl at it
and cut it with whips, or throw stones, or club it with heavy limbs,
until finally one of them came to his senses and calmed the others,
and they would winch out the horse with ropes and wagon wheels, if
they could, or else abandon the horse or kill it--first stripping off
the saddle and bridle and the handsomely decorated harness. At times,
when a wagon was hopelessly mired, the men would
walk back to Hrothgar's hall for help. When they returned, the wagon
would be emptied of all its gold and burned, sometimes by people of
Hrothgar's own tribe, though usually by others, and the oxen and
horses would be dead.
Hrothgar met with his council for many nights and days, and they drank
and talked and prayed to their curious carved-out creatures and
finally came to a decision. They built roads. The kings from whom
they'd taken tributes of treasure they now asked for tributes of men.
Then Hrothgar and his neighbors, loaded like ants on a long march,
pushed foot by foot and day by day around the marshes and over the
moors and through the woods, pressing flat rocks into the soft ground
and grass, and packing smaller stones around the rocks' sides, until,
from my watch on the wall of the cliff, Hrothgar's whole realm was
like a wobbly, lopsided wheel with spokes of stone.
And now when enemies from farther out struck at kings who called
themselves Hrothgar's friends, a messenger would slip out and ride
through the night to the tribute-taker, and in half an hour, while the
enemy bands were still shouting at each other, still waving their
ashspears and saying what horrible things they would do, the forest
would rumble with the sound of Hrothgar's horsemen. He would overcome
them: his band had grown large, and for the treasures Hrothgar could
afford now to give them in sign of his thanks, his warriors became
hornets. New roads snaked out. New meadhalls gave tribute. His
treasure-hoard grew till his meadhall was piled to the rafters with
brightly painted shields and ornamented swords and boar's-head helmets
and coils of gold, and they had to abandon the meadhall and sleep in
the outbuildings. Meanwhile, those who paid tribute to him were forced
to strike at more distant halls to gather the gold they paid to
Hrothgar--and a little on the side for themselves. His power overran
the world, from the foot of my cliff to the northern sea to the
impenetrable forests south and east. They hacked down trees in
widening rings around their central halls and blistered the land with
peasant huts and pigpen fences till the forest looked like an old dog
dying of mange. They thinned out the game, killed birds for sport, set
accidental fires that would burn for days. Their sheep killed hedges,
snipped valleys bare, and their pigs nosed up the very roots of what
might have grown. Hrothgar's tribe made boats to drive farther north
and west. There was nothing to stop the advance of man. Huge boars
fled at the click of a harness. Wolves would cower in the glens like
foxes when they caught that deadly scent. I was filled with a
wordless, obscurely murderous unrest.
One night, inevitably, a blind man turned up at Hrothgar's temporary
meadhall. He was carrying a harp. I watched from the shadow of a
cowshed, since on that hill there were no trees. The guards at the
door crossed their axes in front of him. He waited, smiling foolishly,
while a messenger went inside. A few minutes later the messenger
returned, gave the old man a grunt, and--cautiously, feeling ahead of
himself with his crooked bare toes like a man engaged in some strange,
pious dance, the foolish smile still fixed on his face--the blind old
man went in. A boy darted up from the weeds at the foot of the hill,
the harper's companion. He too was shown in.
The hall became quiet, and after a moment Hrothgar spoke, tones low
and measured--of necessity, from too much shouting on midnight raids.
The harper gave him back some answer, and Hrothgar spoke again. I
glanced at the watchdogs. They still sat silent as treestumps, locked
in my spell. I crept closer to the hall to hear. The people were noisy
for a time, yelling to the harper, offering him mead, making jokes,
and then again King Hrothgar spoke, white-bearded. The hall became
The silence expanded. People coughed. As if all by itself, then, the
harp made a curious run of sounds, almost words, and then a moment
later, arresting as a voice from a hollow tree, the harper began to
Lo, we have heard the honor of the Speardanes,
nation-kings, in days now gone,
how those battle-lords brought themselves glory.
Oft Scyld Shefing shattered the forces
of kinsman-marauders, dragged away their
meadhall-benches, terrified earls--after first men found him
castaway. (He got recompense for that!)
He grew up under the clouds, won glory of men
till all his enemies sitting around him
heard across the whaleroads his demands and gave
him tribute. That was a good king!
So he sang--or intoned, with the harp behind him--twisting together
like sailors' ropes the bits and pieces of the best old songs. The
people were hushed. Even the surrounding hills were hushed, as if
brought low by language. He knew his art. He was king of the Shapers,
harpstring scratchers (oakmoss-bearded, inspired by winds). That was
what had brought him over wilderness, down blindman's alleys of time
and space, to Hrothgar's famous hall. He would sing the glory of
Hrothgar's line and gild his wisdom and stir up his men to more daring
deeds, for a price.
He told how Scyld by the cunning of arms had rebuilt the old Danish
kingdom from ashes, lordless a long time before he came, and the prey
of every passing band, and how Scyld's son by the strength of his wits
had increased their power, a man who fully understood men's need, from
lust to love, and knew how to use it to fashion a mile-wide list of
chain-locked steel. He sang of battles and marriages, of funerals and
hangings, the whimperings of beaten enemies, of splendid hunts and
harvests. He sang of Hrothgar, hoarfrost white, magnificent of mind.
When he finished, the hall was as quiet as a mound. I too was silent,
my ear pressed tight against the timbers. Even to me, incredibly, he
had made it all seem true and very fine. Now a little, now more, a
great roar began, an exhalation of breath that swelled to a rumble of
voices and then to the howling and clapping and stomping of men gone
mad on art. They would seize the oceans, the farthest stars, the
deepest secret rivers in Hrothgar's name! Men wept like children:
children sat stunned. It went on and on, a fire more dread than any
visible fire.
Only one man in the kingdom seemed cast down: the man who'd been
Hrothgar's harper before the blind man came to make his bid. The
former harper crept out into the darkness, unnoticed by the rest. He
slipped away through fields and forests, his precious old instrument
under his arm, to seek out refuge in the hall of some lesser marauder.
I too crept away, my mind aswim in ringing phrases, magnificent,
golden, and all of them, incredibly, lies.
What was he? The man had changed the world, had A torn up the past by
its thick, gnarled roots and had transmuted it, and they, who knew the
truth, remembered it his way--and so did I.
I crossed the moors in a queer panic, like a creature half insane. I
knew the truth. It was late spring. Every sheep and goat had its
wobbly twins. A man said, "I'll steal their gold and barn their
meadhall!" and another man said, "Do it now!" I remembered the ragged
men fighting each other till the snow was red slush, whining in
winter, the shriek of people and animals burning, the whip-slashed
oxen in the mire, the scattered battle-leavings: wolf-torn corpses,
falcons fat with blood. Yet I also remembered, as if it had happened,
great Scyld, of whose kingdom no trace remained, and his farsighted
son, of whose greater kingdom no trace remained. And the stars
overhead were alive with the promise of Hrothgar's vast power, his
universal peace. The moors their axes had stripped of trees glowed
silver in the moonlight, and the yellow lights of peasant huts were
like scattered jewels on the ravendark cloak of a king. I was so
filled with sorrow and tenderness I could hardly have found it in my
heart to snatch a pig!
Thus I fled, ridiculous hairy creature torn apart by poetry--crawling,
whimpering, streaming tears, across the world like a two-headed beast,
like mixed-up lamb and kid at the tail of a baffled, indifferent
ewe--and I gnashed my teeth and clutched the sides of my head as if to
heal the split, but I couldn't.
There was a Scyld, once, who ruled the Danes; and other men ruled
after him, that much was true. And the rest?
At the top of the cliffwall I turned and looked down, and I saw all
the lights of Hrothgar's realm and the realms beyond that, that would
soon be his, and to clear my mind, I sucked in wind and screamed. The
sound went out, violent, to the rims of the world, and after a moment
it bounced back up at meharsh and ungodly against the sigh of the
remembered harp--like a thousand tortured rat-squeals crying: Lost!
I clamped my palms to my ears and stretched up my lips and shrieked
again: a stab at truth, a snatch at apocalyptic glee. Then I ran on
all fours, chest pounding, to the smoky mere.
He sings to a heavier harpsong now, old heart-string scratcher, memory
scraper, Of the richest of kings made sick of soul by the scattered
bones of thanes. By late afternoon the fire dies down and the column
of smoke is white, no longer greasy. There will be others this year,
they know; yet they hang on. The sun backs away from the world like a
crab and the days grow shorter, the nights grow longer, more dark and
dangerous. I smile, angry in the thickening dusk, and feast my eyes on
the greatest of meadhalls, unsatisfied.
His pride. The torch of kingdoms. Hart.
The Shaper remains, though now there are nobler courts where he might
sing. The pride of creation. He built this
hall by the power of his songs: created with casual words its grave
mor(t)ality. The boy observes him, tall and solemn, twelve years older
than the night he first crept in with his stone-eyed master. He knows
no art but tragedy--a moving singer. The credit is wholly mine.
Inspired by winds (or whatever you please), the old man sang of a
glorious meadhall whose light would shine to the ends of the ragged
world. The thought took seed in Hrothgar's mind. It grew. He called
all his people together and told them his daring scheme. He would
build a magnificent meadhall high on a hill, with a view of the
western sea, a victory-seat near the giants' work, old ruined fortress
from the world's first war, to stand forever as a sign of the glory
and justice of Hrothgar's Danes. There he would sit and give treasures
out, all wealth but the lives of men and the people's land. And so his
sons would do after him, and his sons' sons, to the final generation.
I listened, huddled in the darkness, tormented, mistrustful. I knew
them, had watched them; yet the things he said seemed true. He sent to
far kingdoms for woodsmen, carpenters, metalsmiths, goldsmiths--also
carters, victualers, clothiers to attend to the workmen--and for weeks
their uproar filled the days and nights. I watched from the vines and
boulders of the giants' ruin, two miles off. Then word went out to the
races of men that Hrothgar's hall was finished. He gave it its name.
From neighboring realms and from across the sea came men to the great
celebration. The harper sang.
I listened, felt myself swept up. I knew very well that all he said
was ridiculous, not light for their darkness but flattery, illusion, a
vortex pulling them from sunlight to heat, a kind of midsummer
burgeoning, waltz to the sickle. Yet I was swept up. "Ridiculous!" I
hissed in the black of the forest. I snatched up a snake from beside
my foot and whispered to it, "I knew him when!" But I couldn't bring
out a wicked cackle, as I'd meant to do. My heart was light with
Hrothgar's goodness, and leaden with grief at my own bloodthirsty
ways. I backed away, crablike, further into darkness--like a crab
retreating in pain when you strike two stones at the mouth of his
underwater den. I backed away till the honeysweet lure of the harp I
no longer mocked me. Yet even now my mind was tormented by images.
Thanes filled the hall and a great silent crowd of them spilled out
over the surrounding hill, smiling, peaceable, hearing the harper as
if not a man in all that lot had ever twisted a knife in his
neighbor's chest.
"Well then he's changed them," I said, and stumbled and fell on the
root of a tree. "Why not?"
Why not? the forest whispered back--yet not the forest, something
deeper, an impression from another mind, some live thing old and
I listened, tensed.
Not a sound.
"He reshapes the world," I whispered, belligerent. "So his name
implies. He stares strange-eyed at the mindless world and turns dry
sticks to gold."
A little poetic, I would readily admit. His manner of speaking was
infecting me, making me pompous. "Nevertheless," I whispered
crossly--but I couldn't go on, too conscious all at once of my
whispering, my eternal posturing, always transforming the world with
words--changing nothing. I still had the snake in my fist. I set it
down. It fled.
"He takes what he finds," I said stubbornly, trying again. "And by
changing men's minds he makes the best of it. Why not?" But it sounded
petulant; and it wasn't true, I knew. He sang for pay, for the praise
of women--one in particular--and for the honor of a famous king's hand
on his arm. If the ideas of art were beautiful, that was art's fault,
not the Shaper's. A blind selector, almost mindless: a bird. Did they
murder each other more gently because in the woods sweet songbirds
Yet I wasn't satisfied. His fingers picked infallibly, as if moved by
something beyond his power, and the words stitched together out of
ancient songs, the scenes interwoven out of dreary tales, made a
vision without seams, an image of himself yet not-himself, beyond the
need of any shaggy old gold-friend's pay: the projected possible.
"Why not?" I whispered, jerking forward, struggling to make my eyes
sear through the dark trunks and vines.
I could feel it all around me, that invisible presence, chilly as the
first intimation of death, the dusty unblinking eyes of a thousand
snakes. There was no sound. I touched a fat, slick loop of vine,
prepared to leap back in horror, but it was only vine, no worse. And
still no sound, no movement. I got up on my feet, bent over,
squinting, and edged back through the trees toward the town. It
followed me--whatever it was. I was as sure of that as I'd ever been
of anything. And then, in one instant, as if it had all been my mind,
the thing was gone. In the hall they were laughing.
Men and women stood talking in the light of the meadhall door and on
the narrow streets below; on the lower hillside boys and girls played
near the sheep pens, shyly holding hands. A few lay touching each
other in the forest eaves. I thought how they'd shriek if I suddenly
showed my face, and it made me smile, but I held myself back. They
talked nothing, stupidities, their soft voices groping like hands. I
felt myself tightening, cross, growing restless for no clear reason,
and I made myself move more slowly. Then, circling the clearing, I
stepped on something fleshy, and jerked away. It was a man. They'd cut
his throat. His clothes had been stolen. I stared up at the hall,
baffled, beginning to shake. They went on talking softly, touching
hands, their hair full of light. I lifted up the body and slung it
across my shoulder.
Then the harp began to play. The crowd grew still.
The harp sighed, the old man sang, as sweet-voiced as a child.
He told how the earth was first built, long ago: said that the
greatest of gods made the world, every wonder-bright plain and the
turning seas, and set out as signs of his victory the sun and moon,
great lamps for light to land-dwellers, kingdom torches, and adorned
the fields with all colors and shapes, made limbs and leaves and gave
life to the every creature that moves on land.
The harp turned solemn. He told of an ancient feud between two
brothers which split all the world between darkness and light. And I,
Grendel, was the dark side, he said in effect. The terrible race God
I believed him. Such was the power of the Shaper's harp! Stood
wriggling my face, letting tears down my nose, grinding my fists into
my streaming eyes, even though to do it I had to squeeze with my elbow
the corpse of the proof that both of us were cursed, or neither, that
the brothers had never lived, nor the god who judged them. "Waaa!" I
Oh what a conversion!
I staggered out into the open and up toward the hall with my burden,
groaning out, "Mercy! Peace!" The harper broke off, the people
screamed. (They have their own versions, but this is the truth.)
Drunken men rushed me with battle-axes. I sank to my knees, crying,
"Friend! Friend!" They hacked at me, yipping like dogs. I held up the
body for protection. Their spears came through it and one of them
nicked me, a tiny scratch high on my left breast, but I knew by the
sting it had venom on it and I understood, as shocked as I'd been the
first time, that they could kill me--eventually would if I gave them a
chance. I struck at them, holding the body as a shield, and two fell
bleeding from my nails at the first little swipe. The others backed
off. I crushed the body in my hug, then hurled it in their faces,
turned, and fled. They didn't follow.
I ran to the center of the forest and fell down panting. My mind was
wild. "Pity," I moaned, "O pity! pity!" I wept--strong monster with
teeth like a shark's--and I slammed the earth with such force that a
seam split open twelve feet long. "Bastards!" I roared. "Sons of
bitches! Fuckers!" Words I'd picked up from men in their rages. I
wasn't even sure what they meant, though I had an idea: defiance,
rejection of the gods that, for my part, I'd known all along to be
lifeless sticks. I roared with laughter, still sobbing. We, the
accursed, didn't even have words for swearing in! "AAARGH!" I whooped,
then covered my ears and hushed. It sounded silly.
My sudden awareness of my foolishness made me calm.
I looked up through the treetops, ludicrously hopeful. I think I was
half prepared, in my dark, demented state, to see God, bearded and
gray as geometry, scowling down at me, shaking his bloodless finger.
"Why can't I have someone to talk to?" I said. The stars said nothing,
but I pretended to ignore the rudeness. "The Shaper has people to talk
to," I said. I wrung my fingers. "Hrothgar has people to talk to."
I thought about it.
Perhaps it wasn't true.
As a matter of fact, if the Shaper's vision of goodness and peace was
a part of himself, not idle rhymes, then no one understood him at all,
not even Hrothgar. And as for Hrothgar, if he was serious about his
idea of glory--sons and sons' sons giving out treasure--I had news for
him. If he had sons, they wouldn't hear his words. They would weigh
his silver and gold in their minds. I've watched the generations. I've
seen their weasel eyes.
I fought down my smile.
"That could change," I said, shaking my Finger as if at an audience.
"The Shaper may yet improve men's minds, bring peace to the miserable
But they were doomed, I knew, and I was glad. No denying it. Let them
wander the fogroads of Hell.
* * *
Two nights later I went back. I was addicted. The Shaper was singing
the glorious deeds of the dead men, praising war. He sang how they'd
fought me. It was all lies. The sly harp rasped like snakes in
cattails, glorifying death. I snatched a guard and smashed him on a
tree, but my stomach turned at the thought of eating him. "Woe to the
man," the Shaper sang, "who shall through wicked hostilities shove his
soul down into the fire's hug! Let him hope for no change: he can
never turn away! But lucky the man who, after his deathday, shall seek
the Prince, Find peace in his father's embrace!"
"Bullshit!" I whispered through clenched teeth. How was it that he
could enrage me so?
Why not? the darkness hissed around me. Why not? Why not? Teasing,
tormenting, as cold as a dead hand closing on my wrist.
Imagination, I knew. Some evil inside myself pushed out into the
trees. I knew what I knew, the mindless, mechanical bruteness of
things, and when the harper's lure drew my mind away to hopeful
dreams, the dark of what was and always was reached out and snatched
my feet.
And yet I'd be surprised, I had to admit, if anything in myself could
be as cold, as dark, as centuries old as the presence I felt around
me. I touched a vine to reassure myself. It was a snake. I snapped
back in terror.
Then I calmed myself again. The fangs hadn't hit. It came to me that
the presence was still there, somewhere deeper, much deeper, in the
night. I had a feeling that if I let myself I could fall toward it,
that it was pulling me, pulling the whole world in like a whirlpool.
Craziness, of course. I got up, though the feeling was as strong as
ever, and felt my way back through the forest and over to the
cliffwall and back to the mere and to my cave. I lay there listening
to the indistinct memory of the Shaper's songs. My mother picked
through the bone pile, sullen. I'd brought no food.
"Ridiculous," I whispered.
She looked at me.
It was a cold-blooded lie that a god had lovingly made the world and
set out the sun and moon as lights to land-dwellers, that brothers had
fought, that one of the races was saved, the other cursed. Yet he, the
old Shaper, might make it true, by the sweetness of his harp, his
cunning trickery. It came to me with a fierce jolt that I wanted it.
As they did too, though vicious animals, cunning, cracked with
theories. I wanted it, yes! Even if I must be the outcast, cursed by
the rules of his hideous fable.
She whimpered, scratched at the nipple I had not sucked in years. She
was pitiful, foul, her smile a jagged white tear in the firelight:
She whimpered one sound: Dool-dool! dool-dool!, scratching at her
bosom, a ghastly attempt to climb back up to speech.
I clamped my eyes shut, listened to the river, and after a time I
I sat up with a jerk.
The thing was all around me, now, like a thunder charge.
"Who is it?" I said.
No answer. Darkness.
My mother was asleep; she was as deadlooking as a red-gray old
sea-elephant stretched on the shore of a summer day.
I got up and silently left the cave. I went to the cliffwall, then
down to the moor.
Still nothing.
I made my mind a blank and fell, sank away like a stone through earth
and sea, toward the dragon.
No use of a growl, a whoop, a roar, in the presence of that beast!
Vast, red-golden, huge tail coiled, limbs sprawled over his
treasure-hoard, eyes not firey but cold as the memory of family
deaths. Vanishing away across invisible floors, there were things of
gold, gems, jewels, silver vessels the color of blood in the undulant,
dragon-red light. Arching above him the ceiling and upper walls of his
cave were alive with bats. The color of his sharp scales darkened and
brightened as the dragon inhaled and exhaled slowly, drawing new air
across his vast internal furnace; his razorsharp tusks gleamed and
glinted as if they too, like the mountain beneath him, were formed of
precious stones and metals.
My heart shook. His eyes stared straight at me. My knees and insides
were so weak I had to drop down on all fours. His mouth opened
slightly. Bits of flame escaped.
"Ah, Grendel!" he said. "You've come." The voice was startling. No
rolling boom, as I would have expected, but a voice that might have
come from an old, old man. Louder, of course, but not much louder.
"We've been expecting you," he said. He gave a nervous laugh, like a
miser caught at his counting. His eyes were heavy-lidded, minutely
veined, wrinkled like an elderly mead-drinker's. "Stand around the
side, if you don't mind, boy," he said. "I get a cough sometimes, and
it's terrible straight out front." The high dead eyelids wrinkled
more, the corners of his mouth snaked up as he chuckled, sly, hardly
hiding his malice. I quickly ducked around to the side.
"Good boy," he said. He tipped his head, lowering an eye toward me.
"Smart boy! He he he!" He lifted a wrinkled paw with man-length talons
for nails and held it over my head as if to crush me with it, but he
merely brought it down lightly, once, twice, three times, patting my
"Well, speak, boy," he said. "Say 'Hello there, Mr. Dragon!'" He
My throat convulsed and I tried to get my breath to speak, but I
The dragon smiled. Horrible, debauched, mouth limp and cracked, loose
against the teeth as an ancient dog's. "Now you know how they feel
when they see you, eh? Scared enough to pee in their pants! He he!" He
looked startled by an unpleasant thought, then cross. "You didn't, did
you ?"
I shook my head.
"Good," he said. "That's valuable stuff you're standing on. Boobies,
hemorrhoids, boils, slaver (nyeh heh heh)... Now." He moved his head
as if adjusting his flaking neck to a tight metal collar and put on
what looked like, for him, a sober expression, like an old drunk
preparing a solemn face for court. Then, as if involuntarily, he
cackled again. It was horrible, horrible! Obscene! He couldn't stop
himself. He cackled so hard a brilliant tear like a giant diamond
rolled down his cheek. And still he couldn't stop. He raised up the
taloned paw and pointed at me. His head tipped back, laughing, blowing
fire out his mouth and nostrils. He tried to say something, but the
laughing got worse. He rolled over on his side, stretching up one
vast, wrinkled wing for balance, covering his eyes with one claw,
still pointing with the other, roaring with laughter and kicking a
little with his two back feet. I felt cross all at once, though I
didn't dare show it. "Like a rabbit!" he brought out. "Nyee he he he!
When you're scared, you look--nyee he he he--exactly... (gasp!)
I scowled and, realizing I had my hands out in front of me like a
rabbit sitting up, I jerked them behind my back. My scowl of rage
nearly finished him. He hooted, gasped, sobbed, began to choke with
laughter. I forgot myself completely. I snatched up an emerald the
size of a Est and pulled it back to throw it at him. He was sober
instantly. "Put it down!" he said. He drew in breath and turned his
huge head straight at me. I dropped it and fought to keep my bowels
from moving down.
"Don't touch," he said. The old-man voice was as terrible now as the
eyes. It was as if he'd been dead for a thousand years. "Never never
never touch my things, " he said. Flame came out with the words and
singed the hair on my belly and legs. I nodded, trembling all over.
"Good," he said. He stared at me a moment longer, then slowly, slowly
turned his head away. Then, old womanish, as if he were, though still
spiteful, slightly embarrassed, he got back up onto his treasure pile,
stretched out his wings, and settled.
He was in the foulest of moods. I doubted that I could learn anything
from him now. I'd be lucky to get away alive. I thought all at once
about what he'd said: "Now you know how they feel when they see you."
He had a point. From now on I'd stay clear of them. It was one thing
to eat one from time to time--that was only natural: kept them from
overpopulating, maybe starving to death, come winter--but it was
another thing to scare them, give them heart attacks, fill their
nights with nightmares, just for sport.
"Fiddlesticks," the dragon said.
I blinked.
"Fiddlesticks, that's what I said," he repeated. "Why not frighten
them? Creature, I could tell you things..." He rolled his eyes up
under the heavy lids and made a noise, "Glaagh." He remained that way,
breathing hard with peevish anger. "Stupid, stupid, stupid!" he
hissed. "The whole damned kit and caboodle. Why did you come here? Why
do you bother me ?--Don't answer!" he added quickly, stopping me. "I
know what's in your mind. I know everything. That's what makes me so
sick and old and tired."
"I'm sorry," I said.
"Be still!" he screamed. Flame shot clear to the cave-mouth. "I know
you're sorry. For right now, that is. For this one frail, foolish
flicker-flash in the long dull fall of eternity. I'm unimpressed--No
no! Be still!" His eye burst open like a hole, to hush me. I closed my
mouth. The eye was terrible, lowering toward me. I felt as if I were
tumbling down into it--dropping endlessly down through a soundless
void. He let me fall, down and down toward ,a black sun and spiders,
though he knew I was beginning to die. Nothing could have been more
disinterested: serpent to the core.
But then he spoke after all, or rather laughed, and reality snapped
back. Laughed, spoke, and broke my fall not as a kindness to me but
because of his cold pleasure in knowing what he knew. I was in the
cave again, and his horrible smile was snaking up his wrinkled cheek
and his eye was once more half-closed. "You want the word," he said.
"That's what you've come for. My advice is, don't ask! Do as I do!
Seek out gold--but not my gold--and guard it!"
"Why?" I said.
"BE STILL!" The cave went white with his fire, and the rock walls
roared the echo back. Bats flew like dust in a granary, then returned
to their places, a few at a time, until all was still again,
motionless, as if lifeless. His wings, which had stretched out
slightly, relaxed and settled.
I waited for what seemed hours, huddling, my fingers protecting my
Then: "You want to know about the Shaper."
I nodded.
"Illusion," he said. He half smiled, then let it go as if infinitely
weary, sick of Time. "I know everything, you see," the old voice
wheedled. "The beginning, the present, the end. Everything. You now,
you see the past and the present, like other low creatures: no higher
faculties than memory and perception. But dragons, my boy, have a
whole different kind of mind." He stretched his mouth in a kind of
smile, no trace of pleasure in it. "We see from the mountaintop: all
time, all space. We see in one instant the passionate vision and the
blowout. Not that we cause things to fail, you understand." He was
testy all at once, as if answering an argument that had been put to
him so often he was sick of it. "Dragons don't mess with your piddling
free will. Pah! Listen to me, boy." The dead eye brightened. "If you
with your knowledge of present and past recall that a certain man
slipped on, say, a banana peel, or fell off his chair, or drowned in a
river, that recollection does not mean that you caused him to slip, or
fall, or drown. Correct? Of course it's correct! It happened, and you
know it, but knowledge is not cause. Of course! Anyone who argues
otherwise is a stupid ignoramus. Well, so with me. My knowledge of the
future does not cause the future. It merely sees it, exactly as
creatures at your low level recall things past. And even if, say, I
interfere--burn up somebody's meadhall, for instance, whether because
I just feel like it or because some supplicant asked me to--even then
I do not change the future, I merely do what I saw from the beginning.
That's obvious, surely. Let's say it's settled then. So much for free
will and intercession!"
The dragon's eye closed to a slit. "Grendel!"
I jumped.
"Don't look so bored," he said. He scowled, black as midnight. "Think
how I must feel," he said.
I almost said "I'm sorry," but caught myself.
"Man," he said, then left a long pause, letting scorn build up in the
cave like the venom in his breath. "I can see you understand them.
Counters, measurers, theory-makers.
All pigs eat cheese.
Old Snuggle is a pig.
If Snuggle is sick and refuses to eat, try cheese.
Games, games, games!" He snorted fire. "They only think they think. No
total vision, total system, merely schemes with a vague family
resemblance, no more identity than bridges and, say, spiderwebs. But
they rush across chasms on spiderwebs, and sometimes they make it, and
that, they think, settles that! I could tell you a thousand tiresome
stories of their absurdity. They'd map out roads through Hell with
their crackpot theories, their here-to-the-moon and-back lists of
paltry facts. Insanity--the simplest insanity ever devised! Simple
facts in isolation, and facts to connect them--ands and buts--are the
sine qua non of all their glorious achievement. But there are no such
facts. Connectedness is the essence of everything. It doesn't stop
them, of course. They build the whole world out of teeth deprived of
bodies to chew or be chewed on.
"They sense that, of course, from time to time; have uneasy feelings
that all they live by is nonsense. They have dim apprehensions that
such propositions as 'God does not exist' are somewhat dubious at
least in comparison with statements like 'All carnivorous cows eat
meat.' That's where the Shaper saves them. Provides an illusion of
reality--puts together all their facts with a gluey whine of
connectedness. Mere tripe, believe me. Mere sleight-of-wits. He knows
no more than they do about total reality--less, if anything: works
with the same old clutter of atoms, the givens of his time and place
and tongue. But he spins it all together with harp runs and hoots, and
they think what they think is alive, think Heaven loves them. It keeps
them going--for what that's worth. As for myself, I can hardly bear to
"I see," I said. It was to some extent untrue.
The dragon smiled, seemed almost friendly for an instant. "You've been
very attentive and thoughtful," he said, "all things considered. So I
will tell you about Time and Space."
"Thank you," I said, as heartily as I could manage. I had more than
enough to think about, it seemed to me.
He scowled, and I said no more. He took a deep breath, shifted his
forelegs to a position more comfortable, and, after a moment's
thought, began:
"In all discussions of Nature, we must try to remember the differences
of scale, and in particular the differences of time-span. We (by which
I mean you, not us) are apt to take modes of observable functioning in
our own bodies as setting an absolute scale. But as a matter of fact,
it's extremely rash to extend conclusions derived from observation far
beyond the scale of magnitude to which the observation was confined.
For example, the apparent absence of change within a second of time
tells nothing as to the change within a thousand years. Also, no
appearance of change within a thousand years tells anything concerning
what might happen in, say, a million years; and no apparent change
within a million years tells anything about a million million years.
We can extend this progression indefinitely; there is no absolute
standard of magnitude. Any term in this progression is large compared
to its predecessor and small compared to its successor.
"Again, all special studies presuppose certain fundamental types of
things. (Here I am using the word 'thing,' notice, in its most
general sense, which can include activities, colors, and all other
sense, also values.) As lower minds function, study, or 'science,' is
concerned with a limited set of various types of things. There is
thus, in the first place, this variety of types. In the second place,
there is the determination as to what types are exhibited in any
indicated situation. For example, there is the singular
proposition--'This is green'--and there is the more general
proposition--'All those things are green.' This type of inquiry is
what your usual reasoning takes care of. Undoubtedly such inquiries
are essential in the initial stage of any study, for lower minds. But
every such study must strive to get beyond it. Unfortunately--"
He glanced at me, suspicious. "You're not paying attention."
"I am!" I said, clasping my hands to show my seriousness.
But he shook his head slowly. "Nothing interests you but excitement,
"That's not true!" I said.
His eye opened wider, his body brightened from end to end. "You tell
me what's true?" he said.
"I'm trying to follow. I do my best," I said. "You should be
reasonable. What do you expect?"
The dragon thought about it, breathing slowly, full of wrath. At last
he closed his eyes. "Let us try starting somewhere else," he said.
"It's damned hard, you understand, confining myself to concepts
familiar to a creature of the Dark Ages. Not that one age is darker
than another. Technical jargon from another dark age." He scowled as
if hardly capable of forcing himself on. Then, after a long moment:
"The essence of life is to be found in the frustrations of established
order. The universe refuses the I deadening influence of complete
conformity. And yet in its refusal, it passes toward novel order as a
primary requisite for important experience. We have to explain the aim
at forms of order, and the aim at novelty of order, and the measure of
success, and the measure of failure. Apart from some understanding,
however dim-witted, of these characteristics of historic process..."
His voice trailed off.
After another long pause, he said: "Approach it this way. Let us take
this jug." He picked up a golden vessel and held it toward me, not
letting me touch it. In spite of himself, as it seemed, he looked
hostile and suspicious, as if he thought I might perhaps be so stupid
as to snatch the thing and run. "How does this jug differ from
something animate?" He drew it back out of reach. "By organization!
Exactly! This jug is an absolute democracy of atoms. It has
importance, or thereness, so to speak, but no Expression, or, loosely,
ah-ha!-ness. Importance is primarily monistic in its reference to the
universe. Limited to a finite individual occasion, importance ceases
to be important. In some sense or other--we can skip the details--
importance is derived from the immanence of infinitude in the finite.
Expression, however--listen closely now--expression is founded on the
finite occasion. It is the activity of finitude impressing itself on
its environment. Importance passes from the world as one to the world
as many, whereas expression is the gift from the world as many to the
world as one. The laws of nature are large average effects which reign
impersonally. But there is nothing average about expression: it is
essentially individual. Consider one definite molecule--"
"A what?" I said.
The closed eyes squeezed tight. He let out a long, cross sigh of
red-orange fire.
"Put it this way," he said. His voice had grown feeble, as if he were
losing hope. "In the case of vegetables, we find expressive bodily
organizations which lack any one center of experience with a higher
complexity either of expressions received or of inborn data. Another
democracy, but with qualifications, as we shall see. An animal, on the
other hand, is dominated by one or more centers of experience. If the
dominant activity be severed from the rest of the body--if, for
example, we cut off the head--the whole coordination collapses, and
the animal dies. Whereas in the case of the vegetable, the democracy
can be subdivided into minor democracies which easily survive without
much apparent loss of functional expression." He paused. "You at least
follow that?"
"I think so."
He sighed. "Listen. Listen closely! An angry man does not usually
shake his fist at the universe in general. He makes a selection and
knocks his neighbor down. A piece of rock, on the other hand,
impartially attracts the universe according to the law of gravitation.
You grant there's a difference ?"
He waited, furious with impatience. I met his eye as long as I could,
then shook my head. It was unfair. For all I knew he might be telling
me gibberish on purpose. I sat down. Let him babble. Let him burn me
alive. The hell with it.
After a long, long time, he said, "It was stupid of you to come."
I nodded, sulking.
He stretched his wings--it was like a huge, irascible yawn--then
settled again. "Things come and go," he said. "That's the gist of it.
In a billion billion billion years, everything will have come and gone
several times, in various forms. Even I will be gone. A certain man
will absurdly kill me. A terrible pity--loss of a remarkable form of
life. Conservationists will howl." He chuckled. "Meaningless, however.
These jugs and pebbles, everything, these too will go. Poof! Boobies,
hemorrhoids, boils, slaver..."
"You don't know that!" I said.
He smiled, showing all his teeth, and I knew he knew it.
"A swirl in the stream of time. A temporary gathering of bits, a few
random dust specks, so to speak--pure metaphor, you understand--then
by chance a vast floating cloud of dustspecks, an expanding
universe--" He shrugged. "Complexities: green dust as well as the
regular kind. Purple dust. Gold. Additional refinements: sensitive
dust, copulating dust, worshipful dust!" He laughed, hollow as the
cavern around him. "New laws for each new form, of course. New lines
of potential. Complexity beyond complexity, accident on accident,
until--" His leer was like icy wind.
"Go on," I said.
He closed his eyes, still smiling. "Pick an apocalypse, any
apocalypse. A sea of black oil and dead things. No wind. No light.
Nothing stirring, not even an ant, a spider. A silent universe. Such
is the end of the flicker of time, the brief, hot fuse of events and
ideas set off, accidentally, and snuffed out, accidentally, by man.
Not a real ending of course, nor even a beginning. Mere ripple in
Time's stream."
I squinted. "That really could happen?"
"It has happened," he said--and smiled as if it pleased him--"in the
future. I am the witness."
I thought about it for a while, remembering the harp, then shook my
head. "I don't believe you."
"It will come."
I went on squinting at him, hand on my mouth. He could lie. He was
evil enough.
He shook his ponderous head. "Ah, man's cunning mind!" he said, and
cackled. "Merely a new complexity, a new event, new set of
nonce-rules generating further nonce-rules, down and down and down.
Things lock on, you know. The Devonian fish, the juxtaposed thumb, the
fontanel, technology--click click, click click..."
"I think you're lying," I said, confused again, aswirl in words.
"I noticed that. You'll never know. It must be very frustrating to be
caged like a Chinaman's cricket a limited mind." His cackle lacked
spirit, this time. He was growing very weary of my presence. .
"You said 'Fiddlesticks,'" I said. "Why is it fiddlesticks if I stop
giving people heart attacks over nothing? Why shouldn't one change
one's ways, improve one's character ?" I must have been an interesting
sight, that instant, big shaggy monster intense and earnest, bent like
a priest at his prayers.
He shrugged. "Whatever you like. Do as you think best."
"But why?"
"'Why? Why?' Ridiculous question! Why anything? My advice to you--"
I clenched my fists, though it was absurd, of course. One does not
swing at dragons. "No, why?"
The dragon tipped up his great tusked head, stretched his neck, sighed
fire. "Ah, Grendel!" he said. He seemed that instant almost to rise
to pity. "You improve them, my boy! Can't you see that yourself? You
stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to
poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as
long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which
they learn to define themselves. The exile, captivity, death they
shrink from--the blunt facts of their mortality, their
abandonment--that's what you make them recognize, embrace! You are
mankind, or man's condition: inseparable as the mountain-climber and
the mountain. If you withdraw, you'll instantly be replaced. Brute
existents, you know, are a dime a dozen. No sentimental trash, then.
If man's the irrelevance that interests you, stick with him! Scare him
to glory! It's all the same in the end, matter and motion, simple or
complex. No difference, finally. Death, transfiguration. Ashes to
ashes and slime to slime, amen."
I was sure he was lying. Or anyway half-sure. Flattering me into
tormenting them because he, in his sullen hole, loved viciousness. I
said, "Let them find some other 'brute existent,' whatever that is. I
"Do!" he said leering scornfully. "Do something else, by all means!
Alter the future! Make the world a better place in which to live! Help
the poor! Feed the hungry. Be kind to idiots! What a challenge!"
He no longer looked at me, no longer made any pretense of telling the
truth. "Personally," he said, "my great ambition is to count all
this"--he waved vaguely at the treasure around him--"and possibly sort
it into piles. 'Know thyself,' that's my dictum. Know how much you've
got, and beware of strangers!"
I scraped away rubies and emeralds with the side of my foot. "Let me
tell you what the Shaper said."
"Spare me, I beg you!" He covered his ears with his claws, gave a
hideous grin.
But I was stubborn. "He said that the greatest of gods made the world,
every wonder-bright plain and the turning seas. He said--"
"What god? Where? Life-force, you mean? The principle of process? God
as the history of Chance?"
In some way that I couldn't explain, I knew that his scorn of my
childish credulity was right.
"Nevertheless, something will come of all this," I said.
"Nothing," he said. "A brief pulsation in the black hole of eternity.
My advice to you--"
"Wait and see," I said.
He shook his head. "My advice to you, my violent friend, is to seek
out gold and sit on it."
Nothing was changed, everything was changed, by my having seen the
dragon. It's one thing to listen, full of scorn and doubt, to poets'
versions of time past and visions of time to come; it's another to
know, as coldly and simply as my mother knows her pile of bones, what
is. Whatever I may have understood or misunderstood in the dragon's
talk, something much deeper stayed with me, became my aura. F utility,
doom, became a smell in the air, pervasive and acrid as the dead smell
after a forest fire--my scent and the world's, the scent of trees,
rocks, waterways wherever I went.
But there was one thing worse. I discovered that the dragon had put a
charm on me: no weapon could cut me. I could walk up to the meadhall
whenever I pleased, and they were powerless. My heart became darker
because of that. Though I scorned them, sometimes hated them, there
had been something between myself and men when we could fight. Now,
invulnerable, I was as solitary as one live tree in a vast landscape
of coal.
Needless to say, I misunderstood in the beginning: I thought it an
It was the height of summer, harvest season in the first year of what
I have come to call my war with Hrothgar. The night air was filled
with the smell of apples and shocked grain, and I could hear the noise
in the meadhall from a mile away. I moved toward it, drawn as always,
as if by some kind of curse. I meant not to be seen that night. For
all the dragon's talk, I had no intention of terrifying Hrothgar's
thanes for nothing. (I had not begun, at that time, my systematic
raids. In fact I hadn't yet admitted to myself that it was war. I
killed stragglers now and then--with a certain grim pleasure very
different from that which I got from cracking a cow's skull--but I'd
never yet struck at the hall, hadn't even revealed myself
there--except on that one ridiculous night when I walked up and tried
to join them.) I hunkered down at the edge of the forest, looking up
the long hill at the meadhall lights. I could hear the Shaper's song.
I no longer remember exactly what he sang. I know only that it had a
strange effect on me: it no longer filled me with doubt and distress,
loneliness, shame. It enraged me. It was their confidence,
maybe--their blissful, swinish ignorance, their bumptious
self-satisfaction, and, worst of all, their hope. I went closer,
darting from cowshed to cowshed and finally up to the wall. I found a
crack and peeked in. I do remember what he said, now that I think
about it. Or some of it. He spoke of how God had been kind to the
Scyldings, sending so rich a harvest. The people sat beaming,
bleary-eyed and fat, nodding their approval of God. He spoke of God's
great generosity in sending them so wise a king. They all raised their
cups to God and Hrothgar, and Hrothgar smiled, bits of food in his
beard. The Shaper talked of how God had vanquished their enemies and
filled up their houses with precious treasure, how they were the
richest, most powerful people on earth, how here and here alone in all
the world men were free an