The Boring King
If the past were a tree lying on its side
with the long grass growing around it
and I was to go to it with a saw in my hands
and rest my knee on its trunk until
I found the stillness in the blade
before I pulled it back and forth
through the wood, the teeth might snag
on a knot as if it were a piece of bone
and pictures of us sitting on bikes,
standing by boats might spark off the teeth.
There wouldn’t be any of you.
My bleak father, you have given me
the need to forget you.
You, the King of an island where the trees
don’t grow, and us the three princesses
who fell asleep the moment you began to speak.
As you talked on and on into the night,
our sleep grew sweeter and sweeter,
our hair grew longer and thicker around us.
One day we woke to find you gone.
A photograph of two girls
May 2014, Uttar Pradesh
They hung them high up. Girl cousins split between
the branches of a great mango tree. One in red,
the other in green – colours so bold for a moment,
you blink and in that dark sweep of lid across eye
you pretend someone has draped the tree in swathes of cloth
and that’s all you’re looking at – blocks of colours running
in strange waterfalls down to the ground. But then you see
the feet and the hair, oiled and plaited and the way their necks
slump like broken stems in their scarves, and the bodies sway
back into the frame. You notice the girl in green is higher
than the girl in red, so high her feet are clear and sharp in the air,
while her cousin’s blur in the dust just above the ground.
And then your eyes move out from the branches
to take in the crowd gathered around the base of the tree,
women sitting in a circle, men and boys standing awkwardly
amongst them. A net of villagers thrown around the girls,
like a thicket of thorns grown too late to keep them safe
but enough to slow the men who come in their uniforms
to cut them down – some of them the same men
who found the girls the night before in the fields, who held them
down and split them open, who shared them out as if they were
fruit to be scraped out of their skins. And so they stay a little longer,
to be seen by all the world, those untouchable girls
in their bold colours, hanging in the branches of a mango tree.
They bothered us like flies, those great cows with heads
as big as dogs and flanks like tanks twitching in the sun.
They spent their days churning up the paths that ran
in broken lines through the folds of our map. We didn’t listen
to stories of walkers trampled to death, breathing their last
under those weirdly delicate legs, or tales of strange new breeds
rampaging through the fields like giant hogweed.
We gave them a wide berth, hugging the field’s edge instead
and left the cows to loll in the middle. We climbed a hill
and sat with our backs against a wall when a whole gang of bullocks
appeared, snorting and staring at us with their glossy eyes.
We scrambled over the wall, flinging children, dogs, sandwiches
into the air. And then they wandered off – all except one
– who stood looking at my daughter, as if his huge cow heart
was beating just for her. Those in the sea of fields around our house
were different, like cows on a tin of Caran D’Ache pencils.
One evening we got back to find one lying on her side
with her head held up so she could look at her new black son,
still wet but already trying out his new legs. We missed the bit
when she got to her feet, but when we looked again,
there she was licking him dry, his frame buckling a little
under the weight of her tongue. My daughter loved that –
the way he leant into her, the way the bulk of her steadied him.
That night, a sound came from the cow’s throat and folded itself
into the creases of my dream, and I saw her, falling back
into the grass, leaving the calf standing where she had been.
In the morning I went to the window and there she was,
lying in the field like something washed up by the tide.
And that image hung itself, unsteadily, in my head,
rocking slowly between death and sleep. Once my daughter
had seen her, and turned her face back to mine, I knew.
I tried to undo the knot that had held them together, telling her
the herd would look after him. As the light left the sky something
pulled him back to her, made him chase the gathering crows
away before he folded up his legs and settled himself next to her.
In the morning, she was gone and my daughter’s face had changed.
Laura Scott lives in Norwich. Her first pamphlet What I Saw (Rialto, 2013) won the 2014 Michael Marks Award. Her poems have been published in magazines including Edinburgh Review, Magma, Poetry Review, Tate etc and The Rialto.