And the Ass Saw the Angel
Nick Cave was born in Australia in 1957 and achieved early recognition as a founding member of the rock group The Birthday Party. In 1983 he formed The Bad Seeds, who soon after released the first of their eleven albums to date, From Her to Eternity. After some years in London Cave moved to Berlin in 1984, and his first book, King Ink, was published in 1988, the same year as The Bad Seeds appeared in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and scored the controversial prison film Ghosts of the Civil Dead, whose screenplay Cave helped to write. In 1996 Murder Ballads was released - featuring a hugely popular collaboration with Kylie Minogue - and King Ink II was published; in the same year, The Bad Seeds scored John Hillcoat’s film To Have and to Hold. The Boatman’s Call, hailed by many as Cave’s masterpiece, was released in 1998.
And the Ass Saw the Angel has been recognized as one of the most extraordinary fictional d6buts of recent years and has been translated into seventeen languages. Penguin also publish Nick Cave’s Complete Lyrics.
And the Ass Saw the Angel
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published by Black Spring Press Ltd 1989
Published in Penguin Books 1990
Copyright © Nick Cave, 1989
All rights reserved
The moral right of the author has been asserted
Except in the United States of America this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in hich it is published and without a similar condition including this ondition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
23 And the ass saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field: and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way.
24 But the angel of the Lord stood in a path of the vineyards, a way being on this side, and a wall on that side.
25 And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall: and he smote her again.
26 And the angel of the Lord went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left.
27 And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff.
28 And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam,
What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?
29 And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.
30 And the ass said unto Balaam, Am I not thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee?
And he said, Nay.
31 Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.
Three greasy brother crows wheel, beak to heel, cutting a circle into the bruised and troubled sky, making fast, dark rings through the thicksome bloats of smoke.
For so long the lid of the valley was clear and blue but now, by God, it roars. From where ah lie the clouds look prehistorical, belching forth great faceless beasts that curl ’n’ die, like that, above.
And the crows – they still wing, still wheel, only closer now – closer now – closer now to me.
These sly corbies are birds of death. They’ve shadowed me all mah life. It’s only now that ah can reel them in. With mah eyes.
Ah think ah could almost remember how to sleep on this soft, warm circle of mud, for mah rhythms differ. They do.
Sucked by the gums of this toothless grave, ah go – into this fen, this pit, though ah fear to get mah kill-hand wet. In truth and as ah speak, the two crows have staked out mah eyes – like a couple of bad pennies they wheel and wait, while the rolling smoke curls and dies above, and ah see that it turns darker now and ah am but one full quarter gone – unner – or nearly and gaining.
There below! O little valley!
Two shattered knees of land rise and open to make a crease between. Down the bitten inner flank we go, where trees laden with thick vines grow upon the trembling slopes. Some hang out into the valley at dangerous angles, their worried roots rising from the hillside soil as they suffer the creeping burden that trusses and binds and weighs like the world across their limbs. This knitted creeper, these trees, all strung one to one and chained to the ground by vine.
Travelling the length of the valley, south to north, as the crow flies, we follow its main road as it weaves its way along the flat of the valley’s belly. From up here it could be a ribbon, as we pass over the first of many hundreds of acres of smouldering cane.
Tonight is the first night of the seasonal ‘burn-off’, an occasion of great importance and high festivity for Ukulore Valley, when the townsfolk all take to the tall fields to watch the wall of fire sweep the cane of its useless foliage, its ‘trash’. Yet this night sees all strangely quiet here on the out-fields: wet sacks and snake-beaters carelessly abandoned, sparks and grey ash borne silently through the air on a low wind.
The sugar refinery sprawls out by the east flank, a mile from the town. We can hear the steady chugging of its engines. Trolleys – some empty, some part loaded – sit forgotten on the tracks.
Wing on and past, over the town itself, where the rusty corrugated roofs grow denser and we can see the playground and the Courthouse and Memorial Square.
Down there, in the centre of the Square, erected at the very heart of the valley, the marble sepulchre containing the relics of the prophet crumbles and splits beneath the slogging of three down-borne mallets.
A group of black-clad mourners, mostly women, watch on as the monument is destroyed. See how they wail and gnash their teeth! And see the great marble angel, its face carved in saintly composure, one arm held high, a gilded sickle in its fist; will they bring that down as well?
And on, through the commotion, through the town’s stormy heart, where women mourn as at a wake, bullying their grief with breasts bruised black and knuckles bleeding. Watch how they fan the streets with their wild, black gestures, twisting the sack-cloth of their robes with pleading seizures and dark spasms.
From up here they look like ground-birds.
Circle once these creatures of grief, and then onward across the stricken town, over the clusters of trailers where the cane-cutters live, at the heel of the rhythm of the crops. Here, at this dark hour, only their women and frightened children remain. Standing at their windows, the ghosts of their breath coming and going on the glass, they listen to the motors of their men roar northward then fade amongst the hiss and crackle of the fields.
But onward, winging go, or are you tired brothers?
Pursue Maine Road till the cane ends abruptly against bare wire fences, four miles from town, two miles from the northern valley entrance. Here we can see the pick-ups, trucks and utilities, shedding cocoons of red dust as they file off Maine towards the tarred clapboard shacks. Here live the out-cast, the hobos, the hill-trash.
A lone shack on a junk-heap burns and burns, belching purple smoke into the restless air.
Though weary of wing, a little further.
Beyond the shack the land grows sodden, paludal, and from the marsh rises a wheel of vegetation – tall trees born into bondage, rising from the quitch and cooch and crabbing dog-weed, carrying a canopy of knitted vine upon their wooden shoulders.
Here we dip and dive, for this is the swampland.
As we pass above, we see a line of torches winking beneath the dark canopy, moving inward and towards the centre of the circle in a thin ribbon of light.
Torn from the very centre of the swampland is a clearing, round like a plate, and within this clearing, like a wheel within a wheel, is a circle of quick-mud, black and steaming, large enough to digest a cow. It glistens darkly at our passing. But stop. Wing! Wheel! Look who lies on the surface of the mud, all curled up like a new-born! See how his bones cleave to his skin. How his ribs fan softly each time he draws breath. See how he is nearly naked. And look how very still he is.
But for that eye.
It rolls in its orbit, and, fish-like, fixes us. We freeze and circle.
It was his brother who tore the caul on that, the morning of their birth, and as if that sole act of assertion was to set an inverted precedent for inertia in his life to come, Euchrid, then unnamed, clutched ahold of his brother’s heels and slopped into the world with all the glory of an uninvited guest.
The noon-day sun spun in the sky like a molten bolt and hammered down upon the tin roof and tarred plank sides of the shack. Inside sat Pa, at his table, surrounded by his ingenious contraptions of springs and steel, sweating midst the bleeding heat while greasing his traps and trying, in vain, to closet his ears from the drunken ravings of his wife, who lay sprawled and caterwauling in the back seat of the old burnt-out Chevy. Pride of the junk-pile, that car, sitting on bricks out back of the shack, like a great shell shed in disgust by some outsized crawler.
There, in the squirms of labour, his bibulous spouse shrieked against the miracle that swelled and kicked inside her as she sucked on a bottle of her own White Jesus, rocking the Chevy on its stilts and moaning and screaming, screaming and a-moaning, ‘Pa! Pa-a! Pa-a-a!’, until she heard the shack door open and then the shack door shut, whereupon she took leave of the morning and passed into unconsciousness.
‘Too pissed to push,’ Pa would tell Euchrid later.
Prising the liquor bottle free of her grubby clutch, for even out cold she hung on and hung on, Pa broke the bottle carefully on the car’s rusted tail-fin.
Taking intuition as his midwife and a large shard of glass as his cutter, he spread his prostrate wife-with-child and dowsed her private parts in peel liquor. And with a chain of oaths spilling from his mouth, and with all the summer insects humming, with the sun in the sky and not a cloud in sight, with a hellish shriek and a gush of gleet, two slobbering bundles came tumbling out.
‘Jesus! Two!’ cried Pa, but one died soon.
Inside the shack, two fruit-crates lined with newspaper sat side by side on the table. The animal traps had been moved and hung around the walls.
Two boxes and in each a babe. Pa peered in.
Neither made a sound and both lay quite still upon their backs, naked as the day and with eyes wide and wandering. Pa drew the nibbled stub of a pencil from his trouser pocket and, squinting, leaned toward the little ones, writing on the foot-end of the firstborn’s crib ‘#1’, then, licking the tip, ‘#2’ upon the crib in which Euchrid lay. Then he stood back and stared from one to the other, and one and the other reciprocated earnestly.
Theirs were strange almond eyes, with slightly swollen upper lids and next to no lashes, blue but so pale as almost to verge on pink; intent, eager, never still, not for a moment – rather they seemed to hover, these weird chattering eyes, hover and tremble in their browless sockets.
Little Euchrid coughed, short and sharp, his tiny pink tongue lapping at his lower lip then curling back inside. And as if waiting for a signal and recognizing it in Euchrid’s timid hack, the brave little first-born closed his eyes and fell into a slumber from which he would never wake.
‘Goodbye, brother,’ ah said to mahself as he slipped away, and for a full minute ah thought that ah too was going unner, so fucken cold was his dying.
Then sailing through the still night came the raucous fray of her bitchship, mah mother, Ma, screeching in hoarse malediction through the very anus of obscenity whilst banging on the side of the Chevy and going, ‘Wha-ars mah boddle!’
‘Wha-a-ars ma-ah boddle!!’
Pa had fitted two improvised restrainers across mah ankles and chest, forcing me to maintain a horizontal attitude there in mah crate – mah cot – but consumed by an overwhelming need to observe what mah brother was up to now that he had launched so impulsively into Eternity, ah endeavoured to raise mah head in the hope of catching a brief craning glimpse of him.
Having been hauled into Life without warning, jettisoned from the boozy curds of gestation – oh that snuggery where we would float and float! – and left now still reeling from the trauma of birth, mah conception of that final Enigma was, as you may well imagine, shamefully uninformed. Ah mean, how could ah have known just how bloody deathlike Death was?
In any case, much as ah thrashed and craned, there was just no give in the restrainers – nope, no give at all, and eventually ah abandoned all hope. Toil-worn and winded, ah just lay there thinking, ah did, thinking about mah sainted brother in the fruit-crate beside me, thinking how the hell was he gunna get to Heaven if he was having half the trouble that ah was in slipping his bonds?
But ah had managed to wrench one tiny arm free during that first, great, futile and ultimately portentous struggle – and with one grub-sized knuckle ah knocked out a message, using a system of coded raps, taps and gaps that mah brother and ah had devised while adrift in the purling fremitus of the womb.
Do- -Not- -Forget- -Your- -Brother- -Reply
But mah brother did not. Ah tapped out a second time, adding a Please to the end, but again he did not. Please. Undaunted, ah told him what Life was like, and inquired about any special powers he may have developed in Death. Mah signals became urgent and disjointed. The futile raps sounded hollow and lonely as they hung unanswered above mah crate.
Life- -Is- -Bad- -Is- -Hell- -Can- -You- -Fly- -Hel- -Hell- -Help
Finally ah took control, and with mah knuckle barked and weeping ah tapped out one last message upon the inside of mah crate.
Night descended – ah know that now – but as ah lay in harness, supine in mah lonesomeness, and watched with increasing dread as the aching light of day grew subfusc and fraught with the freakish music of the darktime – hoots, incessant shrills, scuttles, bloodcurdling howls – ah thought that the end of the world had come.