Dancing Dust

Poems by Mollie Caird (1922-2000)

The death of Ahab

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Go tell Micaiah in his prison cell,
The lying prophets and the Levites tell,
And that black spirit whispering at the Throne;
Tell the gay concubines, tell Jezebel,
Tell scattered soldiers to the wadis fled ―
 ―  Unshepherded they go like sheep, alone ―
Tell all the knees that have not bowed to Baal,
Tell Israel:
Ahab the King is dead.

Now in dim crannied caves his bowmen crouch,
Where black bats hang in bunches thick as grapes
And squatting owls hiss dark malevolence.
Grim, weary, bloodless men build fires and murmur:
‘It was not thus when Ahab lived and throve
And smote the Syrians.  Two little flocks of kids,
We camped among the hills and laughed to see
Benhadad and the kings in their pavilions,
Stupid and flushed with wine and arrogance ―
But how we smote them!  And remember, too,
The day the Lord sent rain.  Then he loved Ahab,
Ahab fleeing the storm, and that wild prophet
Running before his chariot to Jezreel!
Come, pile the fire against the growl and snuffle
Of hungry lions prowling in the gullies;
In the Royal palace in Samaria
The graven lions are ivory and gold,
With shining beasts and leaves and cherubim ―
But Ahab walks in Sheol with the shades.’

So they fall silent and remember now
How this dark day began:

First came the slaves to clean the threshing floor,
Sweeping up chaff and dung and spreading rugs
And setting wooden thrones to seat the Kings,
Israel and Judah.  Now see where they come,
Jehoshaphat and Ahab side by side,
Doves on the skin and foxes in the heart;
They bill and bow with preening protocol,
And watch each other with their foxes’ eyes.
Next come the prophets through the city gate,
In ecstasy, in trance,
They cut themselves with knives and mouth and prance,
Posture with iron horns in ritual dance ―
 ― Availing nothing, and shall not avail:
Since God ordained the King should die by chance.

Last comes Micaiah laughing in his beard:
‘Go up, O King, go up; you shall prevail’,
But Ahab laughs not;
He grinds the truth from that stern prophet’s heart
Between the millstones of his wrath and pride,
Hating the man more than he hates the word.

So was the battle joined at Ramoth-Gilead,
And so the Kings went up:
Jehoshaphat in trappings of a king,
Purple and gold and jewels, a gaudy target,
And Ahab unbedizened, drab and plain
In sober suit of anonymity,
A man among a thousand other men;
Nor did he fear at first in all the clamour ―
The creak of leather and the clash of bronze,
Whine of slung stone and boom of rallying horn,
The reek of dung and horses, sweat and blood,
Dust thick as smoke and stinging flies like dust,
Salt on the lips and on the tongue’s parched tip.
The soldiering blood leapt to his kingly head
And taught him to distrust Micaiah’s words,
Still clutching coldly at his stomach’s pit.

Then in the Syrian host a certain man,
A man without a face, without a name,
Took arrow from his quiver, tipped the shaft,
Stroked feather, tautened string, then kissed or cursed
The arrow ― this we know not ―
Knelt and let fly.

The random shaft went singing through the ranks,
Small witless engine of the wrath of God,
And found its mark between the armour’s joints,
And Ahab knew it:
A fierce sharp pain a first, and then a numbness
And then a throbbing fire through all his veins,
Waxing and waning with his labouring heart.
All day the blood dripped down, and all that day
The King watched Israel’s doom.  The charioteer,
Cursing and slipping on the sticky floor,
Reined in and whipped and wheeled, and at his back
Sat Ahab, propped and stiff and open-eyed.

Faint now with loss of blood he sees them not,
The tumult and the wounded and the dead,
Nor that grim galaxy above his head,
The inevitable concourse in the sky,
Vortex of white-ruffed vultures wheeling high
And gathering dark as locusts.
He creeps through crimson tunnels of past time,
To distant pin-points, muttering in his trance:
‘Comfort me, Jezebel, warm me, for I am cold;
How soft your silken skin against my arms,
Yielding and sweet, your breasts like pomegranates,
Your breath like balm, and all your fragrant body
A field of lilies for a King’s delight.
But must these petals turn to scorpions? ―
 ― Knotty and cankered as an olive-trunk
This thing is grown ―
What have I in my arms, a wooden Baal?
And these are not my Jezebel’s bright eyes,
But agate stones in some crude idol’s head;
Stones in the eyes, in bloody sockets stones,
Blinding and breaking Naboth ― Naboth, leave me!
Cling not with your dead arms and rotten bones,
Nor stare with those blank eyes and dripping lips,
Red as the sweating stones of Jericho,
Nourished on Segub’s and Abiram’s blood.
Why must the Lord torment me!  Was not King David,
That righteous ruffian, honoured above all,
Anointed by the prophet, loved of God? ―
Yet was Uriah slain, and which is worse,
To steal a vineyard or to steal a wife?
Have you yet found me, O mine enemy?
Begone, Elijah, and that other villain,
You skulking prophet with the ashy face
And wayside beggaring of God’s holy word ―

They are gone, and Jezebel will comfort me;
She said be merry now that Naboth’s dead –
Be merry, sweet.
Like summer snow she melts out of my arms,
Till nothing’s left, nothing ― God, spare me this ―
But the small brittle bones that were her palms
And thin translucent fans of little feet.’

Behind mud walls the sun drops like the dead,
The wind blows cool;
From sliding shadows come the dogs to drink,
Lean-ribbed and mangy, full of lice and grey
They sidle softly to the water’s brink,
Silent as Sheol,
Then silently they lap the brackish pool.
As when the Lord smote plague upon the Nile,
Or when on Carmel Heaven’s fire fell like rain,
Consumed the sacrifice and licked the moat,
So run the waters red.
There, where long since they drank the blood of Naboth,
Stretching parched throats across the sun-cracked mud,
The dogs lick Ahab’s blood.

Wash, wash the armour as the prophet said;
There is no boasting in this taking off ―
Boasting has been in plenty.  Tomorrow’s children
In his granddaughters’ wombs and grandsons’ loins
Are crying and dying for him.  O pity them,
God of the Ark and Covenant,
Jahweh of Hosts, Adonai, Elohim.

This poem won Oxford University's English Poem on a Sacred Subject Prize in 1962. 
The Dancing Dust and other poems, 1983