Peter Bolton (2nd April 1942 / Brecon)
The high priest Pallidan wanted a sacrifice.
Nobody had been taken to the altar for years because the king, being a kindly man, had made the tests too easy.
The first task was to receive a serving of cake upon a platter and deliver it to the king for his enjoyment.
Esme duly held the plate and the slice was placed thereon with the royal tongs.
She held it before her and took a step towards the throne.
In her head a thousand starlings fluttered;
Each spread its wings and plucked a crumb before the wheeling flock flapped from the horizons of her mind.
When she reached the king, the plate was bare.
‘So, it is not going to be so easy after all, but I will not have her blood spilled.’
The second task follows the first since spring water is needed to clear the palate.
The vizier duly poured from his pitcher and handed the glass to Esme.
As she approached, she looked through the glass and its lens distorted the image so that the king loomed as a hideous monster.
In her fear her temperature rose fourfold, so that her touch caused the water to bubble and boil.
Her trembling hand gave the cup to the king, both hot and empty.
‘I see now why she needs my help, even though she comes from the land where myths are born.’
Having partaken of this void repast, the monarch rested in the heat of the day.
It was therefore right to cool him with a fan, its feathers wafting.
Holding the pole, Esme looked up at the plumage.
It troubled her that these ostriches might have been killed.
Her trembling at this thought did cause a gale of storm force ten that blasted the vane so that the feathers scattered like eiderdown from a beaten pillow.
‘She has a tender heart, ’
It was now time to take a candle so that the king might retire to his chamber.
Only one match is allowed, and one match Esme struck on the millstone.
She saw the falling tree, its flesh sliced at the sawmill.
The match broke and, falling, burnt her leg.
‘The sound of her screaming has often echoed through my dreams.
It is a voice that ought to be soothed to gentler speech, her voice.’
She must now sing a lullaby to soothe his majesty to sleep.
Surely she can do that.
Her voice is so quiet, a murmur.
“This night the moon does silent rise,
Its face serene with thought.
It understands, it is so wise,
That we in sleep are caught.”
Do those royal eyelids droop?
Does he find rest?
“This night the moon does sobbing rise.
Its face convulsed with thought.
A vision clear of Earth’s demise,
Its mind with grief is fraught.”
Her song ended in a wail. The king sat up disturbed.
“What is this child? Are you determined to die? ”
“If it be your will, ” Esme replied.
“All my subjects are precious to me.
As you are bent on failing all these tests,
I will thwart Pallidan by imposing another,
One that even you can pass.
You will think of a number and, in a few moments,
On the stroking of the gong, you will declare it.
You may, for instance, say two, and that will suffice.”
‘Say two, Esme, that’s you and I, or one, yourself, or seven?
The moon was in Esme’s eye, and the moon is round.
The gong sounded.
“Now tell me your number, ” said Pallidan, who had come for her heart.
“I haven’t completed my calculation yet, ” she declared, for pi has no ending.
“Then you are indeed mine and the gods will be appeased.”
Thereupon he led her forth into the temple and the king followed.
The sacrificial blade was ready in the priest’s hands, a murderous tooth of steel.
Esme feared not death, not even the slicing through of her flesh.
Her heart beat ready for the new worlds that awaited her.
‘She is not afraid for herself, but she must know.
She must know what the effect will be.
I do not need to save her now,
It is already done and she can act for herself.
If this is true then how my madness has magnified itself! ’
The moon in its course struck the highest light of the temple,
Sending a beam of silver through that hallowed space.
It lit up Esme’s face, her curls, her mind, and she drew from her costume a stone that she had gathered in the mountains.
She held it up in that light and it glowed translucent, rays flooding through it.
They came as through a prism, splayed out in an array of colours unknown to man. How does one describe a colour?
How would you imagine new colours?
These hues were however only transitory.
In the blink of an eye, they painted the wings of a butterfly of imperial size, which fluttered from Esme’s hand.
Its motion on the wing, as it took its course, was the dance of life.
On the king’s chest it alighted, above his heart and there it was transfigured.
A brooch of wondrous design, in gold, the wings sparkling green with encrusted emeralds.
The king was moved.
“Stay your hand, ” he commanded, “for such a gift transcends all tests.
Is this not a sign that we must follow? ”
So Esme was taken to the palace and given much honour.
Poet's Notes about The Poem
Comments about this poem (The Examination by Peter Bolton )
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