How real do you think you are? How much of you is a story, how much is true?
Have you ever heard the story about the rabbit and the scorpion? In this story a rabbit comes across a scorpion beside a wide river and keeping its distance in fear of a sting, the scorpion asks the rabbit if it can help it get to the other side. ‘No’ says the rabbit ‘you’ll just sting and kill me as soon as we get to the other side’, to which the scorpion replies ‘I promise you I won’t, I just need you to help me’. The rabbit took pity on the Scorpion, and so drawing close let the scorpion climb onto its back, and together they swam across.
This story popped into my head the other day when I came across a broken rabbit while filming with Jen Randall, dragging its long half-dead body, legs trailing, numb to the earth, numb to us, numb to death, across the chalky rubble of the quarry floor. We failed to see it at first, standing talking, Jen and me, blinded perhaps by the fact it was not true to its animal nature, its paraplegia a slow camouflage, not jumping as it ought, nor speeding or darting away, but instead a furry caterpillar fast to the muck, back broken, spine snapped. We looked down at it while keeping our distance, some strange malevolence in its manner, watching as it moved by inch, alien-like, spiky claws dragging the muck, wondering how it got here: perhaps by a fall from the cliffs above, perhaps hit by a car - the dual carriageway not far - perhaps by fright: a rabbit able to break its own back by the violent kick of defence. Jen looked down a little distressed, a more sensitive soul than I, an artist’s heart beating, as the rabbit moved in slow circles, going nowhere, knowing it was done for I’m sure: dinner for a dog, or just a toy to shaken to bits. The story of the rabbit and the Scorpion popped into my head, one I’d long forgotten, then we went back to talking for a while, tried to ignore it there, knowing we’d not be able to do so, an itch in our thoughts, turning, again and again, to look at it, pulling its body by its front paws, on and on as if it believed somewhere some safe harbour may yet be found. “Do you think we should put it out of its misery?’ asked Jen.
Rabbits have always given me the creeps, not helped by the fact my cousin once had the end of his finger bitten off by his pet rabbit Bobbles (I doubt most would need to learn the hard way never stick your finger in a cage when there is something inside that can bite it off). This mistrust of these creatures was cemented by the 80’s emotional tasering that was Watership Down, a movie experience I doubt any child ever forgot: sat in a Welsh cinema with my brother Robin on a wet Saturday afternoon, a film that’s like Francis Bacon does Disney, only with a bad dose of acid thrown into the mix, emotionally terrifying, an experience of tears and nightmare (Watership Down was not alone in its emotional impact, with When the Wind Blows and The Snowman being equally emotionally stark 80’s experiences). I’ve always wondered if what I saw in that film was already embedded in my DNA, like the fear of spiders and snakes and heights and the dark, that rabbits hold some form of power over us of a substance we no longer remember, not the fear of the ratty rodent, but of something more pagan, not only fear.
Ted Hughes was a man who cast spells through the rabbit and the hare, a man who also cast a long shadow over many a childhood, for me his book The Iron Man the crucible from which all stories of any value have risen: dark, harsh, austere, boundless and yet full of the music of imagination. For me, The Iron Man, read to me age six, was a window into an adult world of words far removed from children’s stories. Hughes was a muscular thinker, really, his mind that of the beast more than the man, walking a dark path in search of verse and inspiration, a place few are brave enough to mine, no room for a liberal thinker apart from the day-tripper, making him a fascination for the bohemian set, a savage of soil and blood, their very own Oliver Mellors. Assia Wevill once said, having returned from an afternoon of sex with Hughes that he smelt like a butcher, and it was perhaps the meat of this man that was and remains so enduring in our age of lentil thinking. Hughes was an artist who saw the animal occult in nature, a black magic in all livings things, especially the beat of a woman’s heart, and the dark pagan power given over to the fox, the crow, the hare. It’s been said that this was a fad of his time, occultism and black magic just another hippy trend, but perhaps it was an echo of something timeless, a view of nature more in line with reality than one which sees nature as harmonious, that false noble animal utopia, not the dark reality of murderous raw nature. Anyway, there is undeniable dark magic in Ted Hughes words; they reach out, sometimes fur soft, other times claw sharp, the poet using his words for both love and war. Hughes, who was estranged from Silvia Plath and his children, once wrote a story about a man who kills a hare in his car and takes the body to the butchers to sell, buying red roses for his mistress with the profits. This story was dramatised on BBC Radio shortly before Silvia Plath’s suicide, the symbolism not lost on Plath, on such a poet’s ear, she always the hare to Hughes’ fox, his lover Assia Wevill no doubt the recipient of her corpse roses in Silvia’s fitful dreams. It is strange to think in a world of such violence the power of words and stories still hold, of a simple story like that, conjured in a man’s mind, typed and read aloud on the radio, drifting into Silvia’s fragile ear. Did Hughes know where they would lead? Were they cast off like raindrops or poured slowly like poison. Did he know that beautiful and talented head of hers would lay down to die before her gas oven, perhaps in reply (as did Assia several years later, killing herself and Hughes child). What Hughes wrote was as savage as any animal bite, and far more dangerous because the sharpest words never actually heal over or are forgot, taking a slice of a tragedy and making a dangerous brew whose ingredient was there for all to smell. It’s interesting to imagine what spell is conjured up by the high art of poetry when mixed with the lowest form of an animal attack, interesting too to think that no other animal but man is skilled enough to kill with only words, or unstable enough to take their own life as Silvia did.
I think a lot of the power of words, and belief and stories. Most of the world is enslaved by these things, stories and words and trust and hope, the emancipation from faith perhaps the last great leap we need to make as a race before we can know true freedom. But maybe when that day comes we’ll probably lose our soul, what makes us human, the madness that makes us beasts of our minds not beasts of the field.
But back to rabbits. We watched it move on, never going anywhere, not trying to escape, but just round and round. Again Jen asked if we should put it out of its misery, which I realised was a question directed at me, not us.
A friend of mine was once healed by a hundred-year-old Siberian shaman, his broken arthritic bones set new by mushrooms and potatoes, rabbit fat rubbed into his naked body, and a rabbit’s foot he carried until it disintegrated to nothing in his pocket. Not one to be taken in by such rubbish as this, a physicist, nevertheless he decided not the question it either, a pain-free life worth a leap of faith by a man of science. I too have always mistrusted such new age (or old age) ideas, spells that predate the oldest religions by millennia, but still on occasion you do feel would some would take as magic. What are they based on, the woman on the mountain, the raven spirit, or the spirit of an idea you choose to accept. Is the power of words any different, that what that shaman whispers any different to what Ted Hughes may write, words to heal or words to kill?
A Finnish woman once told me of a bone curse, a Sami curse, where you inscribe a curse onto the bones of a rabbit’s foot, then wrap the bones tight with something belonging to your enemy and then bury it deep. The curse increases in power day by day, month by month, slowly becoming part of the earth around it as it rots away, that horrible curse hidden from all but the one who took the time to think and write and bury it, the victim oblivious. When I asked how you wrote a curse, she just said I didn’t matter, that the curse was inside you, between you and the bones. I thought a lot about the nature of this curse and curses in general after this story, an old fashioned idea, but one I thought maybe quite healthy if given a modern spin. It would be so much better for people to direct their pain and anger in such a way, rather than courses and spells conjured by the law, to take all that rage and bury the pain, then sit back and wait for the outcome, which always arrives sooner or later, bad luck and tragedy always just around any corner. So many people carry around so much bitterness and anger at others, I thought that perhaps by writing it down and wrapping it up with magic such dangerous thoughts could be exercised in some way, maybe this is the source of so much religious voodoo, it is the faith of the powerless (would a young man strap on a suicide vest if he had any real power over his life?), perhaps the reality behind all worship, of no value to those in need of nothing. With the bone curse, the curse could only be lifted if the bones can be found again, dug up, untied, scattered and broken, the curse set forever only if the earth had swallowed up your curse entirely, perhaps a warning that it is perhaps best to forgive before it’s too late, to forget, a nice touch that has within it the importance of forgiveness over holding on.
The rabbit came full circle once more, and we stopped talking again and looked down, both no doubt wishing someone else would walk by and sort it out. No doubt someone with compassion would bundle it up and take it to the vet, but it was obviously past that, its bowels no longer working, just a target for some nasty end. ‘Maybe we should put it out of its misery’ repeated Jen one last time. And so I found a stick, one of weight but no too rotted to break, not so light as to the only whip, and walked back over to the rabbit. As I drew close my heart set on the deed our shadows met, all dead calm within the beast vanished, knowing in its small brain what was in my heart, what was to come next, the nobility of its animal suffering replaced by a sudden wild, frantic scream of death, a whining, screeching sound that bled its horror into my heart, stayed my hand for an instant. I hesitated, then brought down the stick on its skull with all my strength killing it stone dead. I looked up at Jen. “I think I want to cry,” she said, and I tried to look cool about it, being a man and all, but like her, all I could hear was the rabbit scream, killed it as much to make it stop then put it out of its misery, the real misery all ours.
Anyway, the rabbit and the scorpion. The rabbit made it to the other side of the river, the scorpion scurrying down its tail onto the bank, onto dry land. Then in a flash, before the rabbit had a chance to run away, the Scorpion struck, its sting striking the body of the rabbit. As the rabbit lay there dying it looked at the scorpion and asked ‘Why did you do that… You promised me’ to which the scorpion replied ‘because I’m a scorpion’.
How much of what we know is real, how much is a story, a damaged woman, soft and warm and real, killing herself, a myth wrapped in magic and words, a man of logic in pain wanting to believe in painless pagan magic, a curse sprung from a bitter heart, buried but not so easily forgotten.