Apr 29

The Story (Ondaatje)

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The Story, by Michael Ondaatje (1943-)


For his first forty days a child

is given dreams of previous lives.

Journeys, winding paths,

a hundred small lessons

and then the past is erased.


Some are born screaming,

some full of introspective wandering

into the past — that bus ride in winter,

the sudden arrival within

a new city in the dark.

And those departures from the family bonds

leaving what was lost and needed.

So the child’s face is a lake

of fast moving clouds and emotions.


A last chance for the clear history of the self.

All our mothers and grandparents here,

our dismantled childhoods

in the buildings of the past.


Some great forty-day daydream

before we bury the maps.



There will be a war, the king told his pregnant wife.

In the last phase seven of us will cross

the river to the east and disguise ourselves

through the farmlands.

We will approach the markets

and befriend the rope-makers.  Remember this.


She nods and strokes the baby in her belly.


After a month we will enter

the halls of that king.

There is dim light from small high windows.

We have entered with no weapons,

just rope in the baskets.

We have trained for years

to move in silence, invisible,

not one creak of bone,

not one breath,

even in lit rooms,

in order to disappear into this building

where the guards live in half-light.


When a certain night falls

the seven must enter the horizontal door

remember this, face down,

as in birth.


Then (he tells his wife)

there is the corridor of dripping water,

a noisy rain, a sense

of creatures at your feet.

And we enter halls of further darkness,

cold and wet among the enemy warriors.

To overcome them we douse the last light.


After battle we must leave another way

avoiding all doors to the north…


(The king looks down

and sees his wife is asleep

in the middle of the adventure.


He bends down and kisses through the skin

the child in the body of his wife.

Both of them in dreams.  He lies there,

watches her face as it catches a breath.

He pulls back a wisp across her eye

and bites it off. Braids it

into his own hair, then sleeps beside them.)



With all the swerves of history

I cannot imagine your future.

Would wish to dream it, see you

in your teens, as I saw my son,

your already philosophical air

rubbing against the speed of the city.

I no longer guess a future.

And do not know how we end

nor where.


Though I know a story about maps, for you.



After the death of his father,

the prince leads his warriors

into another country.

four men and three women.

They disguise themselves and travel

through farms, fields of turnip.

They are private and shy

in an unknown, uncaught way.


In the hemp markets

they court friends.

They are dancers who tumble

with lightness as they move,

their long hair wild in the air.

Their shyness slips away.


They are charming with desire in them.

It is the dancing they are known for.


One night they leave their beds.

Four men, three women.

They cross open fields where nothing grows

and swim across the cold rivers

into the city.


Silent, invisible among the guards,

they enter the horizontal door

face down so the blades of poision

do not touch them. Then

into the rain of the tunnels.


It is an old story — that one of them

remembers the path in.

They enter the last room of faint light

and douse the lamp.  They move

within the darkness like dancers

at the centre of a maze

seeing the enemy before them

with the unlit habit of their journey.


There is no way to behave after victory.



And what should occur now is unremembered.


The seven stand there.

One among them, who was that baby,

cannot recall the rest of the story

— the story his father knew, unfinished

that night, his mother sleeping.


We remember it as a tender story,

though perhaps they perish.

The father’s lean arm across

the child’s shape, the taste

of the wisp of hair in his mouth…


The seven embrace in the destroyed room

where they will die without

the dream of exit.

We do not know what happened.

From the high windows the ropes

are not long enough to reach the ground.

They take up the knives of the enemy

and cut their long hair and braid it

onto one rope and they descend

hoping it will be long enough

into the darkness of the night.

Words That Burn