Baucis & Philemon

Michael Longley after Ovid

In the Phrygian hills an oak tree grows beside a lime tree
And a low wall encloses them. Not far away lies bogland.
I have seen the spot myself. It should convince you
– If you need to be convinced – that the power of heaven
Is limitless, that whatever the gods desire gets done.

Where a drowned valley makes a sanctuary for water birds
(Divers, coots), a whole community used to plough – until
Jupiter brought Mercury without his wand or wings.
Disguised as humans, they knocked at a thousand houses
Looking for lodgings. A thousand houses slammed the door.

But one house took them in, a cottage thatched with straw
And reeds from the bog. Baucis and Philemon, a kindly
Old couple, had been married there when they were young
And, growing old together there, found peace of mind
By owning up to their poverty and making light of it.

Pointless to look for masters or servants here because
Wife and husband served and ruled the household equally.
So, when these sky-dwellers appeared at their cottage-home
Stooping under the low door to get in, the old man
Brought them stools to sit on, the old woman cushions.

She raked the warm ashes to one side and fanned into life
Yesterday’s embers which she fed with leaves and dry bark,
The breath from her old body puffing them into flames.
She hoked around in the roof-space for twigs and firewood,
Broke them up and poked the kindling under her skillet.

She took the cabbage which Philemon had brought her
From the garden plot, and lopped off the outer leaves. He
Lowered a flitch of smoked bacon from the sooty rafters
And carved a reasonable helping from their precious pork
Which he simmered in bubbling water to make a stew.

They chatted to pass the time for their hungry visitors
And poured into a beechwood bucket dangling from its peg
Warm water so that the immortals might freshen up.
Over a sofa, its feet and frame carved out of willow,
Drooped a mattress lumpy with sedge-grass from the river.

On this they spread a coverlet, and the gods sat down.
The old woman tucked up her skirts and with shaky hands
Placed the table in front of them. Because one leg was short
She improvised a wedge and made the surface level
Before wiping it over with a sprig of water-mint.

She put on the table speckly olives and wild cherries
Pickled in wine, endives, radishes, cottage-cheese and eggs
Gently cooked in cooling ashes, all served on crockery.
Next, she produced the hand-decorated wine-jug
And beechwood cups polished inside with yellow wax.

In no time meat arrived from the fireplace piping hot
And the wine, a rough and ready vintage, went the rounds
Until they cleared the table for a second course – nuts
And figs and wrinkly dates, plums and sweet-smelling apples
In a wicker basket, purple grapes fresh from the vines.

The centrepiece was a honeycomb oozing clear honey,
And, over everything, the circle of convivial faces
And the bustle of hospitality. And then the hosts
Noticed that the wine-jug, as soon as it was emptied,
Filled itself up again – an inexhaustible supply.

This looked like a miracle to Philemon and Baucis
Who, waving their hands about as if in prayer or shock,
Apologised for their home-cooking and simple recipes.
They had just one gander, guardian of the small-holding,
Whom they wanted to sacrifice for the divinities.

But he was too nippy for them and flapped out of danger
Into the immortals’ arms. ‘Don’t kill the goose!’ they thundered.
‘We’re gods. Your tightfisted neighbours are about to get
What they deserve. You two are granted immunity.
Abandon your home and climb the mountainside with us.’

Unsteady on their walking-sticks they struggled up the steep
Slope and glancing back, a stone’s throw from the top, they saw
The townland flooded, with just their homestead high and dry.
While they stood flabbergasted, crying out for neighbours,
Their cottage (a squeeze for the two of them) became a church.

Stone pillars took the place of the home-made wooden piles,
The thatching glowed so yellow that the roof looked golden,
Filigree transformed the doorway, and marble tiling
Improved the dirt floor. Jupiter spoke like a gentleman:
‘Grandpa, if you and your good wife could have one wish ...?’

‘May we work as vergers in your chapel, and, since our lives
Have been spent together, please may we die together,
The two of us at the one time? I don’t want to see
My wife buried or be buried by her.’ Their wish came true
And up to the last moment they looked after the chapel.

At the end of their days when they were very old and bowed
And living on their memories, outside the chapel door
Baucis who was leafy too watched Philemon sprouting leaves.
As tree-tops overgrew their smiles they called in unison
‘Goodbye, my dear.’ Then the bark knitted and hid their lips.

Two trees are grafted together where their two bodies stood.
I add my flowers to bouquets in the branches by saying
‘Treat those whom God loves as your local gods – a blackthorn
Or a standing stone. Take care of caretakers and watch
Over the nightwatchman and the nightwatchman’s wife.’