The map of love

"Here dwell," said Sam Rib, "the two-backed beasts." He pointed to his map of Love, a square of seas and islands and strange continents with a forest of darkness at each extremity. The two-backed island, on the line of the equator, went in like the skin of lupus to his touch, and the blood sea surrounding found a new motion in its waters. Here seed, up the tide, broke on the boiling coasts; the sand grains multiplied; the seasons passed; summer, in a father's heat, went down to the autumn and the first pricks of winter, leaving the island shaping the four contrary winds out of its hollows.
     "Here," said Sam Rib, digging his fingers in the hills of a little island, "dwell the first beasts of love." And here the get of the first loves mixed, as he knew, with the grasses that oiled their green upgoings, with their own wind and sap nurtured the first rasp of love that never, until spring came, found the nerves' answer in the fellowing blades.
     Beth Rib and Reuben marked the green sea around the island. It ran through the landcracks like a boy through his first caves. Under the sea they marked the channels, painted in skeleton, that linked the first beasts' island with the boggy lands. For shame of the half-liquid plants sprouting from the bog, the pen-drawn poisons seething in the grass, and the copulation in the second mud, the children blushed.
     "Here," said Sam Rib, "two weathers move." He traced with his finger the lightly drawn triangles of two winds, and the mouths of two cornered cherubs. The weathers moved in one direction. Singly they crawled over the abominations of the swamp, content in the shadow of their own rains and snowings, in the noise of their own sighs, and the pleasures of their own green achings. The weathers, like a girl and a boy, moved through the tossing world, the sea storm dragging under them, the clouds divided in many rages of movement as they stared on the raw wall of wind.
     "Return, synthetic prodigals, to thy father's laboratory," declaimed Sam Rib, "and the fatted calf in a test-tube." He indicated the shift of locations, the pen lines of the separate weathers travelling over the deep sea and the second split between the lovers' worlds. The cherubs blew harder; wind of the two tossing weathers and the sprays of the cohering sea drove on and on; on the single strand of two coupled countries, the weathers stood. Two naked towers on the two-loves-in-a-grain of the million sands, they mixed, so the map arrows said, into a single strength. But the arrows of ink shot them back; two weakened towers, wet with love, they trembled at the terror of their first mixing, and two pale shadows blew over the land.
     Beth Rib and Reuben scaled the hill that cast an eye of stone on the striped valley; hand-in-hand they ran down the hill, singing as they went, and took off their gaiters at the wet grass of the first of the twenty fields. There was a spirit in the valley that would roll on when all the hills and trees, all the rocks and streams, had been buried under the West death. Here was the first field wherein mad Jarvis, a hundred years before, had sown his seed in the belly of a bald-headed girl who had Wandered out of a distant county and lain with him in the pains of love.
     Here was the fourth field, a place of wonder, where the dead might spin all drunken-legged out of the dry graves, or the fallen angels battle upon the waters of the streams. Planted deeper in the soil of the valley than the blind roots could burrow after their mates, the spirit of the fourth field rose out of darkness, drawing the deep and the dark from the hearts of all who trod the valley a score or more miles from the borders of the mountainous county.
     In the tenth and the central field Beth Rib and Reuben knocked at the doors of the bungalows, asking the location of the first island surrounded by loving hills. They knocked at the back door and received a ghostly admonishment.
     Barefooted and hand-in-hand, they ran through the ten remaining fields to the edge of the Idris water where the wind smelt of seaweed and the valley spirit was set with sea rain. But night came down, hand on thigh, and shapes in the further stretches of the now misty river drew a new shape close to them. An island shape walled round with darkness a half-mile up river. Stealthily Beth Rib and Reuben tiptoed to the lapping water. They saw the shape grow, unlocked their fingers, took off their summer clothes, and, naked, raced into the river.
     "Up river, up river," she whispered.
     "Up river," he said.
     They floated down river as a current tugged at their legs, but they fought off the current and swam towards the still growing island. Then mud rose from the bed of the river and sucked at Beth's feet.
     "Down river, down river," she called, and struggled from the mud.
     Reuben, weed-bound, fought with the grey heads that fought his hands, and followed her back to the brink of the sea-going valley.
     But, as Beth swam, the water tickled her; the water pressed on her side.
     "My love," cried Reuben, excited by the tickling water and the hands of the weeds.
     And, as they stood naked on the twentieth field, "My love," she whispered.
     First fear shot them back. Wet as they were, they pulled their clothes on them.
     "Over the fields," she said.
     Over the fields, in the direction of the hills and the hillhome of Sam Rib, like weakened towers the children ran, no longer linked, bewildered by the mud and blushing at the first tickle of the misty island water.
     "Here dwell," said Sam Rib, "the first beasts of love." In the cool of a new morning the children listened, too frightened to touch hands. He touched again the sagging hill above the island, and pointed the progression of the skeleton channels linking mud with mud, green sea with darker, and all love-hills and islands into one territory. "Here the grass mates, the green mates, the grains," said Sam Rib, "and the dividing waters mate and are mated. The sun with the grass and the green, sand with water, and water with the green grass, these mate and are mated for the bearing and fostering of the globe." Sam Rib had mated with a green woman, as Great-Uncle Jarvis with his bald girl; he had mated with a womanly water for the bearing and the fostering of the child who blushed by him. He marked how the boggy lands lay so near the first beast doubling a back, the round of doubled beasts under as high a hill as Great-Uncle's hill that had frowned last night and wrapped itself in stones. Great-Uncle's hill had cut the children's feet, for the daps and the gaiters were lost for ever in the grass of the first field.
     Thinking of the hill, Beth Rib and Reuben sat quiet. They heard Sam say that the hill of the first island grew soft as wool for the descent, or smooth as ice for tobogganing. They remembered the tame descent last night.
     "Tame hill," said Sam Rib, "grows wild for the ascending." Lining the adolescents' hill was a white route of stone and ice marked with the sliding foot or sledge of the children going down; another route, at the foot, climbed upwards in a line of red stone and blood marked with the cracking prints of the ascending children. The descent was soft as wool. Fail on the first island, and the ascending hill wraps itself in a sharp thing of stones.
     Beth Rib and Reuben, never forgetful of the hump-backed boulders and the flints in the grass, turned to each other for the first time that day. Sam Rib had made her and would mould him, would make and mould the boy and girl together into a double climber that sought the island and melted there into a single strength. He told them again of the mud, but did not frighten them. And the grey heads of the weeds were broken, never to swell again in the hands of the swimmer. The day of ascending was over; the first descent remained, a hill on the map of love, two branches of stone and olive in the children's hands.
Synthetic prodigals returned that night to the room of the hill, through caves and chambers running to the roof, discerning the roof of stars, and happy in their locked hands. There lay the striped valley before them, and the grass of the twenty fields fed the cattle; the night cattle moved by the hedges or lapped at warm Idris water. Beth Rib and Reuben ran down the hill, and the tender stones lay still under their feet; faster, they ran down the Jarvis flank, the wind at their hair, smells of the sea blown to their quivering nostrils from the north and the south where there was no sea; and, slowing their speed, they reached the first field and the rim of the valley to find their gaiters placed neatly in a cow-cloven spot in the grass.
     They buttoned on their gaiters, and ran through the falling blades.
     "Here is the first field," said Beth Rib to Reuben.
     The children stopped, the moonlight night went on, a voice spoke from the hedge darkness.
     Said the voice, "You are the children of love."
     "Where are you?"
     "I am Jarvis."
     "Who are you?"
     "Here, my dears, here in the hedge with a wise woman."
     But the children ran away from the voice in the hedge.
     "Here in the second field."
     They stopped for breath, and a weasel, making his noise, ran over their feet.
     "Hold harder."
     "I'll hold you harder."
     Said a voice, "Hold hard, the children of love."
     "Where are you?"
     "I am Jarvis."
     "Who are you?"
     "Here, here, lying with a virgin from Dolgelley."
     In the third field the man of Jarvis lay loving a green girl, and, as he called them the children of love, lay loving her ghost and the smell of buttermilk on her breath. He loved a cripple in the fourth field, for the twist in her limbs made loving longer, and he cursed the straight children who found him with a straight-limbed lover in the fifth field marking the quarter.
     A girl from Tiger Bay held Jarvis close, and her lips marked a red, cracked heart upon his throat; this was the sixth and the weather-tracked field where, turning from the maul of her hands, he saw their innocence, two flowers wagging in a sow's ear. "My rose," said Jarvis, but the seventh love smelt in his hands, his fingering hands that held Glamorgan's canker under the eighth hedge. From the Convent of Bethel's Heart, a holy woman served him the ninth time.
And the children in the central field cried as ten voices came up, came up, came down from the ten spaces of the half-night and the hedging world.
     It was full night when they answered, when the voices of one voice compassionately answered the two-voiced question ringing on the strokes of the upward, upward, and the downward air.
     "We," said they, "are Jarvis, Jarvis under the hedge, in the arms of a woman, a green woman, a woman bald as a badger, on a nun's thigh."
     They counted the numbers of their loves before the children's ears. Beth Rib and Reuben heard the ten oracles, and shyly they surrendered. Over the remaining fields, to the whispers of the last ten lovers, to the voice of ageing Jarvis, grey-haired in the final shadows, they sped to Idris. The island shone, the water babbled, there was a gesture of the limbs in each wind's stroke denting the flat river. He took off her summer clothes, and she shaped her arms like a swan. The bare boy stood at her shoulder; and she turned and saw him dive into the ripples in her wake. Behind them her fathers' voices slipped out of sound.
     "Up river," called Beth, "up river."
     "Up river," he answered.
     Only the warm, mapped waters ran that night over the edges of the first beasts' island white in a new moon.

From A Prospect of the Sea: and other stories and prose writings, published by J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., London, 1955
Copyright © 1937, 1945, 1955, 1956, 1962, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1971, 1977 The Trustees for the Copyrights of Dylan Thomas.

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Acknowledgements: Constantine FitzGibbon, The Life Of Dylan Thomas © 1965; Annis Pratt, Dylan Thomas' Early Prose: A Study In Creative Mythology © 1970; Andrew Sinclair, Dylan Thomas © 1975; Paul Ferris, Dylan Thomas - A Biography © 1977; John Ackerman, Welsh Dylan © 1979; Susan Richardson, The Legacy Of Dylan Thomas In Wales © 2000; Joan Gooding, Britain's Last Romantic Poet: Dylan Thomas © 2000.