Sunday, December 21, 2008

The slumbering worm

Sunday December 21, 2008:

“Deep down in the mud of the riverbed
The great worm sleeps, the great worm sleeps.
Beyond the round curve of the turning earth,
The gold dawn glows and the great worm stirs.


Fooled by the seemingly balmy early morning breeze I am tempted to leave the house without my hat. Standing on the riverbank at Wapping, a short while after, I begin to regret its absence.

The river is high. It gurgles and ripples as it moves busily along; slaps firmly against concrete docks and wooden pilings. Brisk little waves fling themselves purposefully on to the tiny fringe of shingle at the bottom of the steps. It whines and hums as it rushes under the platform upon which we stand. At the end of the longest night we are waiting beside the river for the light to return.

I lean over the balustrade and listen to the river singing. For once, its voice drowns the hum of the never-sleeping city. Only the early peon of a sea-gull penetrates the rush. From time to time, something plops and splashes.

I breathe deeply the slightly salty dank river smell. The rhythm of the river rocks me as I stand quietly listening and waiting.

Oh how cold the water is! My skin retreats closer to my bones as her ice-cold embrace knocks my breath from me. The grey-green silvery river is opaque and churning.

My tail flicks. Hair brushes across my face as I swim deeper. Above me, the surface of the river is silver green like a water-colour paint wash. I gaze up at the reflection of the shadow of the dark clouds against the greying sky with the moon floating in and out. From the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of green-brown eyes in a pale pointed face watching me, her mud-coloured hair streaming around her shoulders.

Under the water, great shadows shift and move. The mud-brown sand is rippled, dotted with darker jagged rocks and littered with the discarded human detritus of a city river. And there in front of me, a huge dark shape lies across my path. Cautiously, I approach for I have a feeling that whatever it is, I need to take care.


The light shifts and I see a great head, long-snouted and horned, with a huge slit mouth and bulging closed eyes. It lies peacefully resting that great head on a great gnarled claw. I see the torso of an enormous snake, scaly and ridged. My eyes follow the length of the body into the darkness beyond and back to the head. The serpent is seemingly sleeping like a baby!

And as this fact dawns on me, I feel the river pushing me inexorably towards the great beast. Any moment now and we will collide. I put out my hands to try to slow my progress but the river has another idea.

I gaze at that magnificent head. Great bubbles float up from its horny nostrils, it is still asleep. The river nudges me forward and I cannon into the great scaly flank. I close my eyes and hold my breath but nothing happens. It hasn’t stirred.

The scales are scratchy but not uncomfortable. I settle down to wait, leaning against the great body. And the shining water sky darkens. I sleep, the worm sleeps, the river dances about us.

I am rocked by the slightly moving flank as the great beast draws breath. I dream of being cradled gently in fierce sharp claws, protected and sheltered.

Something is different. The water feels warmer, the dark is thinner. I feel a change in the movement of the great side against which I lean. I open my eyes and see that the bubbles are moving faster. The snake is twitching, his eyelids faintly flickering.

I push off from against his torso and swim round to the great head. One great dark eye opens and fixes me with a bleary stare. I bow low and the eye closes again. Taking this as my dismissal, I raise my arms and kick off from the sandy bottom and begin to float back up to the silver grey surface.

Above, the sky in the east has pinked. The slightest flecks of gold dance on the water. Beneath me, I see the great dark shadow stretching and sliding away as he moves slowly out to sea.

I want to dance, oh how I want to dance! So I do. I spin round and round. Catching the mood, my companion joins in and soon, we are twirling and waiving our arms like operatic antennae, for somehow, we’ve got talking about cockroaches and decided to dance a cockroach dance. I think this is to encourage them to go away, but I can’t be sure – it might just be for the hell of dancing like a cockroach!

Whatever, it is solstice and we sing:

“Light is returning,
Although it seems the darkest hour.
Nothing can hold back the dawn.”

A varied flock of birds hoot, quack and peon their greeting to the returning light and I remember that I heard a blackbird singing in a tree by the Prospect of Whitby where I had rendezvoused with my companion some time earlier.

“Celebrate the birth of the sun
Light the way O Lucina.
Dance around on Sabbath morn,
Blessed be the greet mother.”

My companion and I sing, still twirling. Beneath our feet the river dances too. Happily it slaps against the man made constraints as though to say “I’m going to dance with you no matter what you do!” Way over in the far east the sky pinks and guilds as the earth turns.

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