Read The Scorpion God: Three Short Novels Online
Authors: William Golding
Three Short Novels
The Scorpion God
1. The Tenth Wonder
3. Jove’s Own Bolt
About the Author
By The Same Author
The Scorpion God
There was not a crack in the sky, not a blemish on the dense blue enamel. Even the sun, floating in the middle of it, did no more than fuse the immediate surroundings so that gold and ultramarine ran and mingled. Out of this sky, heat and light fell like an avalanche so that everything between the two long cliffs lay motionless as the cliffs themselves.
The river water was flat, opaque, dead. The only suggestion of movement anywhere was in the trace of steam that rose from the surface. The flocks of river birds that stood where the mud of the river bank was hard and shattered with hexagonal cracks looked colourfully at nothing. The beds of dry papyrus—slashed with the occasional stem that had bent, broken and leaned against the others—were still as reedbeds painted in a tomb, except when a seed toppled out of a dried crown; and where a seed fell on the shallows, there it lay and did not stir. But farther out the water was deep—must be miles deep for the sun burned down there too and fused the blue enamel of an undersky that matched the heavy blue vault above the red and yellow cliffs. And now, as if two suns were more than they could bear, the cliffs half hid themselves behind the air and began to shake.
Between the cliffs and the river, the black earth was burnt up. The stubble seemed as little like life as the feathers caught everywhere among the separate stubs. The few trees, palms, acacias, hung down their foliage as if they had given up. The houses of limewashed mud seemed as alive as they and not more motionless; not more motionless than the men and women and children who stood on either side of a beaten track that lay parallel with the river and an easy stone’s throw from the bank. These people were all looking away down river, away from the sun which made short, cobalt shadows at their feet. They stood over their shadows and looked down river, hands raised a little, eyes unblinking, mouths open.
There was a faint noise down river. The waiting men looked at each other, rubbed sweaty palms on their linen kilts, then held them up, palms outward and even higher than before. The naked children began to call out and run round until the women bent down in their long robes of linen girt above the breast and shook them into silence and stillness.
A man came into sight on the track from the shadow of a group of palms. He moved in somewhat the same way as the shuddering cliffs. Even at this distance it was easy to distinguish him from the scattering of other figures by the strangeness of his dress and by the fact that they were all looking at him. He came to an open patch of stubble and now it was possible to see that he was running, jogging along, bumping up and down, while the groups he passed gesticulated, cried out, and clapped their hands as they kept their eyes on him. He reached a nearer field and his costume came clear and strange as his movements. He wore a kilt and tall hat both of white linen. There were gleams of gold and blue from his sandals, his wrists and from the wide pectoral that was bouncing on his chest; more gleams from the crook and flail he held in either hand. There was a general gleam from his dark skin, where the sweat ran off him and fell on the cracked earth. The people shouted louder when they saw the sweat fall. Those who had run a little way with him, wiped off their own sweat, slackened their pace and let the runner get away from their land.
Now the runner was so near he could be seen in detail. His face had been oval once, but good living and authority had slabbed it to a rectangle in keeping with his stocky body. He looked like a man who had few ideas but held those he had without examining them; and just now, his idea was to run and keep running. But there were outliers to this central idea, outliers of astonishment and indignation. The indignation was reasonable enough, for the linen hat fell every now and then over one eye and the runner would jab at it with the crook. The strings of the flail were made of alternate blue and gold beads and if he lifted it too high they flicked him in the face. Now and then, as if he had reminded himself of something, he would cross the crook and flail before his stomach so that the requirements of running made him rub one on the other as though he were sharpening a knife. All this, and the swarms of flies, were enough to account for his indignation, though the source of his astonishment could not be detected so easily. He came thudding across the field, with now no more than one runner near him—a lean and muscular young man who shouted mixed encouragement, prayer and praise.
“Run, Great House! Run for my sake! Life! Health! Strength!”
As the two men approached the nearer side of the field it was as if they crossed an invisible boundary. The people grouped by the few houses moved forward and began to shout.
“God! God! Great House!”
All at once they were voluble as the young man and tumultuous. They welcomed the runner with shouts and laughter tears. The women hurried to stand in his path and the children were forgotten among the quick, dark feet. He came jogging through the little street and men began to run with him. There was a blind man, thin and knotted as the stick that supported him, who stood with one hand lifted and looked in the general direction of the runner with eyes as white as balls of quartz; but who cried out none the less.
“Life! Health! Strength! Great House! Great House! Great House!”
Then the runner was away again and beyond the hamlet, having drawn the young men with him while the women were left laughing and crying.
“Did you see, Sister? I touched Him!”
But Great House was still trotting on, still jabbing with his crook at the uneasy hat, still indignant and if anything, even more plainly astonished than before. There were few who ran with him now and none from farther back than the hamlet, except the lean young man. After a while even these stopped, breathless but smiling, as Great House and his attendant ran away from them in front of his dancing tail. There was no noise but deep breathing and the thud of receding feet. The men strolled back to the hamlet where the thick beer was being brought out in jars and jugs and dishes to trestles in the crowded street.
When the runner was out of hearing, the blind man who had stood so long by the track lowered his hand. He did not join the crowd in the hamlet. He turned, felt his way with his stick across some stubble, then through a mass of undergrowth until he came to bare mud in the shade of palms where the mud hexagons of the river bank began. A little boy sat in the shade, cross-legged, hands slack in his lap, head lowered, so that the single lock of hair left by the razor fell past his ear to his knee. He was thin as the blind man, though not so dark-skinned; and his kilt was brilliantly clean except where the twigs and dust of the foreshore clung to it.
The blind man spoke to the air.
“Well. He is gone. We shall not see that sight for another seven years.”
The boy answered listlessly.
“I saw nothing.”
“The young man, the one they call the Liar ran with him. He talked all the time.”
The boy started up.
“You should have told me!”
“I would have gone to see!”
“The Liar, rather than the God, your Father?”
“I love him. He tells me lies that take away the weight of the sky. And he is.”
The boy spread his hands.
“He just is.”
The blind man lowered himself to the ground and laid his stick across his knees.
“It is a great day, little Prince. You knew that, surely?”
“My nurses told me, so I ran away. A great day means standing in the sun and keeping still. Then I am sick. I have to have smokes made and words said. I have to eat things, wear things, drink things.”
“I know. Who does not? Your walk sounds like the walk of a little old man. But today the God proves Himself and perhaps you will be better.”
“How can He prove Himself?”
The blind man thought for a while.
“If it comes to that, how can He keep the sky up and make the river rise? But He does. The sky is there, kept up; and the river will rise as it has risen before. These are mysteries.”
The Prince sighed.
“I am tired of mysteries.”
“We live by them,” said the blind man. “I will show you. Do you see that palm tree on your left?”
“The sun is too bright.”
“Well then. If you were to look, you would see notches cut in the trunk. An arm’s length from the root is the Notch Of Sorrow. If the water were to rise no farther than that, men would starve. How old are you? Ten? Eleven? When I was not much older than you, it happened so and the God of that time took poison.”
“People starved? They died?”
“Men, women and children. But the God is strong, a great lover—though He has no children but your sister and you—a great hunter, eater, drinker. The water will creep up the trunk to the Notch Of Excellent Eating.”
The Prince was interested, despite the sun.
“Why is there a notch right at the top?”
The blind man shook his head forebodingly.
“It was prophesied once, I cannot tell when. The notch was made by a God, they say, and the water has never reached it. Too much is worse than too little. The whole world would be drowned and the waters would lap at the House of Life. That is called—” He bent sideways and whispered—“the Notch Of Utter Calamity.”
The Prince said nothing and after a moment the blind man fumbled then patted his knee.
“This knowledge is too high for you. Let it be. One day, when I am gone and the God has entered his Now in the House of Life you will be a God yourself. Then you will understand.”
The Prince cried out, his head lifted in grief and urgency.
“I don’t want to be a God!”
“What’s this? Who else is there?”
The Prince beat the dry mud feebly with his fists.
“I won’t! They shan’t make me!”
“Quietly, child! If they were to hear you—have you no thought for me?”
But the Prince was staring into the white eyes as if he could force them to see him.
“I won’t—I can’t. I can’t make the river rise or keep the sky up—I have dreams—there is darkness. Things falling. They press, they weigh. I can’t move or breathe——”
The tears were trickling down the Prince’s face. He snivelled and smeared one arm across his nose.
“I don’t want to be a God!”
The blind man began to talk loudly and firmly as if to force the Prince to listen.
“When you are married to your Royal Sister——”
“I’m not going to be married, ever,” said the Prince with sudden passion. “Not ever. Especially not to Pretty Flower, but not ever. If I play with boys they want to play at hunting and I get out of breath. If I play with girls they want to play at being married and I have to bounce up and down on them till I get out of breath all over again and then they bounce up and down until I get giddy.”
The blind man was silent for a while.
“Well,” he said at last. “Well.”
“I should like to be a girl,” said the Prince. “A pretty girl with nothing to do but be pretty and wear pretty things. Then they couldn’t turn me into a God.”
The blind man scratched his nose.
“Not keep the sky up? Not make the river rise? Not slay a bull or shoot at a mark?”
“I could never see the mark, let alone hit it.”
“What can you mean, child?”
“I have a kind of white smoke in my eyes.”
“Prince—are you telling the truth?”
“It grows thicker. Slowly, but thicker.”
“So you see——”
“But Prince, poor child—what do they say?”
“I have told no one. I am tired of spells and smells and filthy things to drink. I am tired.”
The blind man’s voice ran up.
“But you will go blind! Little by little, year by year—child! Think of us! Think of the Notch Of Utter Calamity!”
“What has it to do with me? If I were a girl——”
The blind man was scrabbling with his stick and feet.
“They must know. He must know at once—poor Prince, poor weak one. Poor people!”
The boy laid hold of the blind man’s ankle who pulled himself away and stood up unhandily.
“Don’t tell anyone!”
“I must, poor child. They will cure you——”
“I shall call out to the God at the end of His run and He will hear me!”
“I don’t want to be a God!”
But the blind man was hurrying, tapping with his stick at the accustomed trees, stepping without fail on the narrow paths between the irrigation channels of dry mud. The Prince ran round him, ran by him, crying and calling out and tugging at his loincloth, snatching at his hand. So the blind man hurried on, muttering and shaking his head and fending with his stick.
“Poor child! Poor child!”
At last, breathless, crying, and half-blinded by the sun, the Prince gave up, slackened his pace, trailed and came to a stop. He knelt down in the dust and wept for a time. When he had done weeping he stayed there, head down; and presently he began to recite phrases as if trying them for size or making sure he would remember them.
“I don’t know what he’s talking about. I can see quite well with both eyes.”
And again; a phrase picked up perhaps in the corridors of the Great House.
“The man’s possessed.”
“I am the Prince. The man’s lying.”
He got on all fours and stood up. He kept his eyes slitted and walked in the shade of trees. As he went, he repeated the words to himself like a lesson. “The man’s lying. The man’s lying.”
Then there was a flurry of skirts, a shower of talk, a babble. The two nurses, the black one and the brown one, swooped on him and gathered him in. He was enveloped, enbosomed, cried over, cursed over, adjured, admonished, loved and smothered. They bore him off towards the Great House and after a while they put him down and hugged and kissed him, cleaned his skirt, caressed him in sweat and smell, in mammary abundance and fat arms. They told him how wicked he was to pretend to sleep while they slipped out to watch the God—told him how they had looked all over—how he must tell no one—how unkind he was to his nurses who had no single thought nor moment without concern for his happiness. Then they led him, hand in hand, to a side gate of the Great House, took him in and smartened him quickly for show. He may not have heard of the dangers from crocodiles, river monsters, lions, jackals or dirty old men; for he muttered to himself every now and then without paying attention to them.