An old man sat up one morning in his bed as if about to get up in the usual way for work, but then stopped. He began staring at his feet which poked up from under the bed clothes. His wife called him many times to come down for his breakfast, but he would not or could not. Instead, he began scowling at his feet and muttering half-aloud, as if holding a conversation. This is what he said and heard:
‘Between my two wrinkled fingers,
a mess of fading, fretted threads
without particular line or colour
or order or significance: What is it?
(And his feet said.) your memories.
A servant as negligent as he can be
while still clinging to his job.
who answers my simplest needs
with slow, mocking disdain: Who is that?
Long-winded phrases that flap
aimlessly around my head
at home or in my office till (at last)
they find an open window and jump out:
What are these?
Your passions, loves or hates.
A dozen or so strangers who visit
if and only if I’ m very ill,
lay hypocritical hands on my forehead,
feeling my temperature and
their inheritance, then leave
holding their noses.’ Who are they?
your near relatives.
A narrow rectangular edifice
sinking on shallow foundations
designed to that servant’s specification,
open to any scavenging maggot or worm
that happens by: What is that?
The neat sum, the very grand total
of a lifetime’s shrewd, successful
property management - your grave.
The old man huddled his face in his hands, crumpled up like a lost or abandoned child. He heard his wife calling him once again, and complaining that his breakfast was getting cold. But he sat silent, listening to thoughts that voiced themselves inside his head or heart, from far off, as if from another life, a time long gone. And now and again his feet would answer those thoughts, taunting him:
Before at last the great trumpet sounds
and sounds again,’ before its mighty echo
converts to an irresistible hail that blasts
open each anguished grave: before the hour
when every individual cell, howsoever
dispersed or decomposed. shall by Decree
be re-joined to every other individual cell.
down to the re-perfecting of a fingerprint:
before that hour, may be long before.
you shall hear the angels’ interrogations
howl in your marrowless, hollowed bones:
what is your religion and your worth?
Run, old man, run!
Where will you run?
Who came with clear warnings, reiterated,
and truth you recognized? Offered forgiveness
and you preferred your sins? Pointed you
to eternal light and you ran in to darkness?
Whose teaching called you the many times
away to make a killing in the market-place,
or to play hide and seek with your intentions.
promising to be virtuous after you were
or shame you dare not name him, still less
claim a corner/n his protecting shade!
Run, old man, ran!
Where will you run?
The order of things is not as it was.
There, in this life, your heart knew
it’s deepest need for forgiveness.
and you couldn’t careless. Here too,
your heart knows it’s deepest need,
but here the order is truth and justice.
A command joins every conscience
to every sin, forgotten in this life or
remembered, slight or significant.
the whole chain of it’s circumstance.
antecedent or consequent, actual or
potential. Here your closest secrets
are opened. elaborated, pronounced out loud!
old man, old man!
those you betrayed know it now:
those you robbed know it now:
those you could have helped
but did not help, they are here
staring in your face! Where now,
Where will you run?
Here no hiding or seeking, no turning
aside from the Command: your limbs.
Eyes, ears, tongue, heart, brain, each
obedient, each omniscient tells all
it enacted or endured. Self-accused.
self-condemned, you sit whimpering
like a kitten trapped in traffic ,lost.
desolate, in a pool of shame smelling
worse than your own excrement!
Stinking, stupid feet! Why did you
lead me astray?’ Stinking, stupid man.
we obeyed your every command!
Run, then, if you can, run!
And do you remember the kitten?
Remember the blind man at the roadside
who, gesturing wildly with his stick,
made you stop your important car.
delayed your important appointment
You got out shouting at the blind man.
He only pointed down and said:
I can hear but cannot see to help
the poor thing, it’s hurt. You do it.’
Only then you saw the kitten, it’s tail
broken, it’s nerves shattered by the noise
of passing cars, trembling dreadfully.
covered in the dust of the road.
Do not deny that you considered
carrying the little thing to safety.
Do not deny that you knew what to do.
You knew. But wouldn’t dirty your hands
on it’s dusty fur, not before a business
appointment .So you drove round it
fast leaving the kitten in it’s little agony
and the blind man in confusion.
Run, old man run!
But you have nowhere to run!
The man took his hands from his face
and stared at his feet and said: ‘I will run
to the forgiveness of my Lord. There is no
sin so great that it is greater than His
mercy’. His feet did not reply. Then, much to
his surprise, the old man saw bed and bed
ding disappear from beneath his feet Two
shackles of massive iron rose up and locked
upon each of his ankles: from the shackles
enormous chains, likewise made of massive
iron, descended into a bottomless dark
ness. But the man kept his wits about him
and said in his heart atubu ilayk,
Allahumma, atubu ilayk. The chains fell
away and the darkness closed up. Only the
shackles remained and their weight was
such that the man could not move his legs.
let alone his feet. So he repeated what he
had said in his heart, ever more earnestly.
until the shackles opened. He could now
move his feet but dared not waiting for the
shackles to disappear as the chains had.
But they remained open upon his bed. his
ankles resting in them. Indeed, no matter
how often he urged the words of repen
tance, the shackles remained. So he accepted
them as they were, to serve as a
reminder of the jaws of death.
He heard his wife call him a third time to
come down for breakfast. He got up from bed
briskly and went to wash himself. Not in
preparation for work but, for the first time since (so
long ago, alas) his father had given him a choice
in the matter, in preparation for