The Toad and The Mouse by Seamus Heaney, translated from the Scots of Robert Henryson (c 1420-1490)

Upon a time, as Aesop makes report,

A little mouse came to a river-side ...

Upon a time, as Aesop makes report,
A little mouse came to a river-side.
She couldn't wade, her mouse-shanks were
so short,
She couldn't swim, she had no horse to ride,
So willy-nilly there she had to bide
And to and fro beside that river deep
She ran and cried with many a piteous peep.

"Help, help me over," cried the poor wee mouse,
"For the love of God, someone, across this
With that a toad, in water nearby, rose
(For toads by nature nimbly duck and swim),
And showed her head to mount the bank and
Croaking ashore, then gave her greeting thus:
"Good morning! And what brings you here,
Ms. Mouse?"

"The corn," she said, "in yon field, do you see it?
The ripened oats, the barley, peas and wheat?
I'm hungry and I'd love to get to it
But the water here's too wide, so here I sit.
And on this side get not a thing to eat
But hard nuts that I have to gnaw and bore.
Over beyond, I'd feast on better fare.

"I have no boat, there is no ferryman,
And if there were, I have no coin to pay."
"Sister," said the toad, "stop worrying.
Do what I tell you and I shall find the way
Without horse, bridge or boat or any ferry
To get you over safely, never fear -
And not once wet a whisker or a hair."

"I greatly wonder," said the little mouse,
"How you can, without fin or feather, float.
This river is so deep and dangerous
I think you'd drown as soon as you'd wade out.
Tell me, therefore, what gift or what secret
You own to bring you over this dark flood."
And thus in explanation spoke the toad:

"With my two feet for oars, webbed and broad,
I row the stream," she said, "and quietly pull,
And though it's deep and dangerous to wade,
I swim it to and fro at my own will
And cannot sink, because my open gill
Vents and voids the water I breathe in.
So truly, I am not afraid to drown."

The mouse gazed up into her furrowed face,
Her wrinkled cheeks, her ridged lips like a lid
Hasped shut on her hoarse voice, her hanging
Her lanky wobbly legs and wattled hide.
Then, taken aback, she faced the toad and cried,
"If I know any physiognomy,
The signs on you are of untruth and envy.

"For scholars say the main inclination
Of a man's thought will usually proceed
According to corporeal complexion,
The good or evil prompting in the blood.
A thrawn feature means a nature twisted.
The Latin tag affords old proof of this -
Mores, it says, are mirrored in the face."

"No," said the toad, "that proverb isn't true,
For what looks good is often a false showing.
The bilberry may have a dreary hue
But will be picked while the primrose is left
The face may fail to be the heart's true token.
Therefore I find this scripture still applies:
'You shouldn't judge a man just by his face.'

"Unwholesome as I am to look upon,
It's not my fault. Why should people blame me?
Were I as fair as lovely Absolon,
I won't have been the cause of my own beauty.
This difference in form and quality
Almighty God has caused Mother Nature
To print and inset into every creature.

"Some people's faces may shine eagerly,
Their tongues be silken, their manner amorous,
Yet they are insubstantial inwardly,
Deceitful, unreliable and false."
"Let be your preaching," said the hungry mouse.
"Just make it clear to me how you intend
To guide me over to that bank beyond."

"You know," said the toad, "whenever people
To help themselves, they should think
Go therefore, take a double twine of thread
And bind your leg to mine and knot it firmly.
I'll teach you how to swim - no, no, don't worry -
As well as I." "As you?" replied the mouse.
"To play that game could prove most dangerous.

"I have my freedom, hope for help, but why
Should I be bound? Bad cess then to us both!
For I might lose both life and liberty
And then who's going to compensate that loss -
Unless you swear to me by life and death
To bring me safe and sound to the other side,
Without cheating." "I'll do it," said the toad

And rolled her eyes to heaven and gave a cry,
"O Jupiter, god and king of nature,
This oath I swear in truth to you, that I
Will bring this little mouse across the water."
The oath was made. The mouse, knowing
no better
Than to trust the fork-tongued falsehoods of
this toad,
Took thread and bound her leg as she was bid.

Then both in step, they leapt into the stream,
But in their minds it was a different case.
The mouse's one thought was to float and swim.
To drown the mouse the toad had set her face
And when they reached midstream, started
to press
Downward with her, with every ounce of force,
And mercilessly tried to sink the mouse.

Perceiving this, the mouse cried in dismay,
"Traitor to God! False witness! Perjurer!
Just now you swore by life and death that I
Would be ferried safe and sound across
the water."
But when she realized this was a matter
Of do or die, she scrambled hard to swim
And on the toad's back fought to cling and climb.

The fear of death had made her that much
In self-defence she fought with might and main.
The mouse pressed up, the toad pressed down
upon her,
Now to, now fro, now sunk, now safe again.
And so this poor mouse, plunged in such
great pain
Struggled as long as breath was in her breast
Till in the end she called out for a priest.

As they were battling on like this, a kite
That sat upon a branch nearby took heed
And before either could know had made a strike
And clenched his claw between them round
the thread,
Then swept them to the bank with all
good speed,
Pleased with his prey, repeating his kite-call,
Then loosed them both and made a cruel kill.

That butcher disembowelled them with his bill,
Flayed them, stripped the skin off inside out
Like taking off a sock, but guts and all,
Their flesh only half-filled that greedy kite.
Then, having thus decided their debate,
He rose from the field, I hear, and off he flew.
Ask the ones who saw this if it's true.

© Seamus Heaney

The GuardianTramp

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