When I was sent to parley with the Black Boar King
It was the hunting season.
But that year it was men who were chased down
And torn joints of them hung
Like hams among the branches.
Soon the shift of my skin was doused
In a cool suthering that licked through the trees,
As if I were a minnow in a jar
And each breath was like drinking a gallon of time.
Glade-light, glass-green thick,
Outstared me on every side
And the flash of gold beech leaves
Was a fool’s false glimpse of the sun
At the white corner of my eye.
No paths that far in -
Only broken crashes where he had raged.
The waists of chieftain oaks freshly felled, were all raw
With sap and the must of lichen.
How do you approach terror?
Swine stink burned my throat.
His throne room was a murky thicket of trampled brambles,
And I never saw all of him
Just the great head-
And the burl of his shoulder like the muscle of autumn.
‘Come…why have you come?’ His voice
Was thick with dug black earth and the hacking of trees.
When my tongue woke to his language
I found I was chewing at my lips
As if I too had tusks like yellow daggers and my answer
‘Despite all the men that you have churned in the slubby hollows
And the crops trashed before harvest
And the hedges uprooted, and the snuckling children bitten to rags,
Arthur asks if you will come to the edge of this wood
Where you and he might confer as kings.
For he says that you were a man once
And those seven striped piglets hunching in the shadows
Were your sons.
So, in pity, he will leave aside the harrowing you have done
Across these islands
And look to find a chiming pity in you.’
Dark and high the Twrch reared above me.
His slather was in my hair.
Let me tell you, I was rooted in a sty of fear then
As his stiff-legged litter emerged from their holt
Ranging around me, tawny, groinking and side-staring.
His reply came hot with slurry and carrion.
‘When…when ever did your Lord spare any of our tribe?
My sows and more weaners than these have choked
In their wallows as Arthur’s axmen got good work.
Do you know pig’s blood and man’s blood
Have the same tang? Same spilt sin.
Now, I go in this shape but was indeed a man,
In a beforetime I cannot recall.
There is a starless night at the curl of my tail and only slaughter ahead.
I have nothing to say to your king.’
I looked beyond the coulter of his champing mouth
For I had seen a flash in the bristles between his ears.
‘Strange to see such looped gold fixed on the wedge of your brow.
You wear the razor, scissors and the comb like diadem.
I am to tell you that Arthur will fight you for those
On any ground’
The Twrch’s laughter was like lard boiling in a deep pot. ‘Not until my flitches
Are spined with his arrows will he get these treasures.
Rather than hand them over I would run myself through
Right up to the lugs of his sticking spear.’
I turned away and his brindled brood parted for me.
I did not look behind when accompanied by a choir of squeals
He called after me -
‘In any case we are laying up today to regain our strength,
For tomorrow we go to reive all Arthur’s country
Down to the white bone.’
Poem: Steve O'Brien, 2020.
Illustration: Joe Machine, 2020.