Title: The Iron Woman.
Author: Ted Hughes.
Genre: Fiction, literature, YA, children's lit, ecology, nature.
Publication Date: 1993.
Summary: Mankind for has polluted the seas, lakes and rivers. The Iron Woman has come to take revenge. Lucy understands the Iron Woman's rage and she too wants to save the water creatures from their painful deaths. But she also wants to save her town from total destruction. She needs help. Who better to call on but Hogarth and the Iron Man?
My rating: 7.5/10.
♥ As he turned right, towards the town, his eyes widened and his brain whirled. The swaying, lumpy, black tower, about a hundred yards ahead, close to the road, could not possibly be anything. Unless it was some structure for aerials, something to do with radar, maybe, draped in camouflage. Even when it moved, he still tried to explain it. Maybe it was a windmill, without arms, being moved – as they move whole houses in America. Or maybe some film company was making a film, a horror film; it could be, and that would account for the hideous noises too. He simply did not know what to think – so he went on driving towards it.
But when it stepped out on to the road directly in front of him, he jammed on his brakes.
This, he could see, was something new. This had come up all on its own out of the marsh mud. Clumps and tangles of reeds still slithered down its black length, with the slime. As it dawned on him what he was looking at, his head seemed to freeze. That was his hair trying to stand on end. Tears of pure fear began to pour down his cheeks. But he was a photographer – and no true photographer ever misses a chance.
♥ Lucy was badly frightened. But, even more, she was curious and excited. Surely this was something wonderful. She must not be afraid. If she let herself be afraid now, what might she miss?
♥ Lucy could now see her clearly in full daylight. She gazed at the giant tubes of the limbs, the millions of rivets, the funny concertinas at the joints. It was hard to believe what she was seeing.
"Are you a robot?" she cried.
Perhaps, she thought, somebody far off is controlling this creature, from a panel of dials. Perhaps she’s a sort of human-shaped submarine. Perhaps …
But the rumbling voice came up out of the ground, through Lucy’s legs:
"I am not a robot," it said. "I am the real thing."
♥ Lucy’s fright lasted only for a second. Then she was overwhelmed by what she heard. A weird, horrible sound. A roar of cries. Thousands, millions of cries – wailings, groans, screams. She closed her eyes and put her free hand over her ear. But it made no difference. The dreadful sound seemed to pound her body, as if she were standing under a waterfall of it, as if it might batter her off her feet. Or as if she were standing in a railway tunnel, and the express train was rushing towards her, an express of screaming voices –
Finally, she could stand it no longer and she actually screamed herself. She opened her eyes, trying to drag her hand free and to twist free of the hand enclosing her shoulders. But the thumb and finger held her too tightly, and the enfolding hand gripped her too firmly. And all the time the immense black eyes, so round and so fixed, stared at her. And even though her own eyes were wide open that horrible mass of screams, yells, wails, groans came hurtling closer and closer, louder and louder – till she knew that in the next moment it would hit her like that express train and sweep her away.
But at that moment, the fingers and the hand let her go, and the sound stopped. As if a switch had switched it off.
Lucy stood panting with fear. She almost started to run – anywhere away from where she had been standing. But the great eyes, now half-closed, had become gentle again.
"Oh, what was it?" cried Lucy. "Oh, it was awful!" She felt herself trembling and knew she might burst into tears. Her ears were still ringing.
"What you heard," said the voice, "is what I am hearing all the time."
"But what is it?" cried Lucy again.
"That," said the voice, "is the cry of the marsh. It is the cry of the insects, the leeches, the worms, the shrimps, the water skeeters, the beetles, the bream, the perch, the carp, the pike, the eels."
"They’re crying," whispered Lucy.
"The cry of the ditches and the ponds," the voice went on. "Of the frogs, the toads, the newts. The cry of the rivers and the lakes. Of all the creatures under the water, on top of the water, and all that go between. The waterbirds, the water voles, the water shrews, the otters. Did you hear what they were crying?"
Lucy was utterly amazed. She saw, in her mind’s eye, all those millions of creatures, all the creepy-crawlies, clinging to stones and weeds under the water, with their mouths wide, all screeching. And the fish – she could see the dense processions of shuddering, flashing buckles and brooches, the millions of gold-ringed eyes, with their pouting lips stretched wide – screeching. And the frogs that have no lips – screaming. She suddenly remembered how the giant woman had rubbed her eyes in pain, and she thought of the wet frogs, just as wet and naked as eyeballs, burning – rubbing their eyes with their rubbery almost human fingers. And the eels – that eel. Now she knew. That eel’s silent writhings had been a screaming.
♥ "What’s happened?" cried Lucy. "Oh, what’s wrong with everything?"
The rumbling voice shook the air softly all around her. "Them," she heard, in a low thunder. "Them. Them. They have done it. And I have come to destroy them."
..Who? Lucy was wondering wildly. Who does she mean? Who are ‘them’? And she would have asked, but the Iron Woman had lifted a foot high above the ground and for a frightful moment Lucy thought this huge, terrible being had gone mad, like a mad elephant, and was going to stamp her flat. Then the foot came down hard, and the river bank jumped. The Iron Woman raised her other foot. She raised her arms. Her giant fists clenched and unclenched. Her foot came down and the ground leaped. Her eyes now glared bright red, like traffic lights at danger.
Slowly, the vast shape began to dance, there on the river bank. Lifting one great foot and slamming it down. Lifting the other great foot. She began to circle slowly. Her stamping sounded like deep slow drumbeats, echoing through her iron body. But as she danced, she sang, in that awful voice, as if Lucy were dangling from the tail of a jet fighter just behind the jets:
"DESTROY THE POISONERS.
THE IGNORANT ONES.
DESTROY THE POISONERS.
THE IGNORANT ONES.
♥ "It’s a way to stop the rubbishers."
The great black eyes seemed to grip both of them, and the voice came again. "They have to be changed," it said. "Not just stopped."
♥ "They’ve got to think about it. How long do you think it will take before the whole world’s plugged into the giant scream? And nobody dare touch anybody else?"
The idea horrified him. At the same time, he felt like rolling on the ground with laughter. It was horrifying – but also amazing, wonderfully amazing! To think of such a thing!
And Lucy too, she was frightened by everything that was happening. At the same time, she was dazed with excitement. After all, if that was the way things were, that was the way they were.
♥ While all this had been going on, the Manager, Mr Wells, had been holding a meeting with the owners and manager of an international firm called Global Cleanup. This firm did nothing but transport poisonous wastes from one country to another. Whoever had a problem getting rid of their wastes, Global Cleanup stepped in and did the job. They found all kinds of ways of making the stuff disappear. Some they dumped in far-off countries, where nobody protested. Some they dumped in the sea. Some they dumped in rubbish dumps. Some down old mine shafts. Some in large holes under fields which they simply dug wherever they could persuade a farmer to let them. And some they burned.
Now they were signing an agreement with Mr Wells. They would pay him £1 per tonne if he would get rid of one million tonnes of special chemical poisonous waste.
♥ But as they lowered their glasses and squashed the fiery drink over the back of their tongues, the four men from Global Cleanup saw an impossible thing. They saw Mr Wells’s face go purplish, like a ripe fig. His glass tumbled and rolled over the table, and at the same time he too flopped forward, chest down over the cheque he had been admiring. Four chairs fell over backwards as the men scrambled to their feet. Was Mr Wells having a heart attack? Or a fit? No, this was no longer Mr Wells.
‘My God!’ cried the Global Cleanup Sales Chief. ‘It’s a catfish! And what a catfish!’
All four stared at the broad, blunt, purplish, glistening head sticking out of Mr Wells’s burst white collar. They saw the tiny eyes, which looked like buttons of the same stuff as the skin. And they saw the tentacles writhing round its lips.
Then it lurched, with a ponderous, coiling fling, and there was the whole fish, still inside Mr Wells’s shirt and jacket, lying across the table. His trousers had fallen off, with his shoes and socks. It slammed its tail down hard and gaped two or three times.
One of the four panicked and ran straight at the wall which stopped him with a bang. Then he tried to climb the wall, bringing down a long picture of the factory on top of himself.
..Pandemonium is a poor word for that uproar and confusion. Glass shattered from doors, office furniture staggered and toppled, as slim secretaries struggled with man-sized barbels, carp, salmon and pike, tripping over the litter of empty shoes and tangling, empty trousers. The seals, giant frogs, colossal water beetles helped themselves, and so did the big eels.
The factory’s entire office personnel lurched, flopped, thumped and slithered towards the exit. ‘To the river! To the river!’
Like a mob bursting on to the pitch at the end of a football game, they burst out through the front of the office block.
This was what Lucy had seen when she pointed.
"I can’t believe it!’" screeched Primula. "Camera! Camera!" And she began to yell and pant into her microphone as the mixed and struggling mass of giant fish and people and humping water beasts surged towards them.
That was only the first wave. The second wave was much bigger – the factory workers. Here they came, the same mixture – men reeling under the weight of huge fish that had been their workmates.
The river boiled as the heavy bodies flung themselves in, or slithered in, churning and swirling. The men who carried their friends did not escape. As soon as they had dumped their fishy fellow workers into the river, they simply fell in after them, changing in mid-air. The river was a heaving mass of clothes and great dorsal fins as the fish squirmed free.
♥ But now it was beginning to dawn on those who watched all this that only the men had changed. Not a single woman had changed.
.."Stop the factory. Let the river run clean. Or all these creatures will die."
The booming and rumbling voice seemed to go right through their bodies.
"She’s right," came a voice. "Stop the factory."
All these women suddenly realized there was something they could do. "Stop it now. Stop all that stuff going into the river. That’s a start!"
But then came another shout, a man’s voice:
"It can’t be done. I cannot allow that." Of all the men who had worked at the factory, one was still there in his human form. The Chief Engineer.
"You’re the very one we want," a woman shouted. "You can show us how to stop it."
"I cannot allow it," he told them. He sounded very stern. ‘We simply cannot afford –"
Women’s hands grabbed him by the throat, by the hair, by the arms. He was half carried and half dragged back into the factory. And those women didn’t waste any time. If he hadn’t told them exactly what to do, they would have torn him into ragged fragments, like a great doll.
♥ Not just all over the town, but all over the country men had turned into giant fish, giant newts, giant insect larvae, giant water creatures of some kind. Every man over eighteen years old was in water. And if their eighteenth birthday came on that day, down they flopped with the cake in their mouths.
Wherever the women could not get their husbands into the rivers or reservoirs or ponds, they got them into baths and swimming pools. Nearly every bath in the land had a record-sized barbel, or pike, or some other man-sized fish in it. Or a huge water flea. Here and there it was a monster leech. Mr Wells the giant catfish was now in the swimming pool at his large new home. His two little sons spent their time digging worms and dropping them in, to see him sucking them up off the blue tiles with his great blunt mouth.
The Prime Minister himself was a six-foot-long dragonfly larva, in the bath at Number Ten. His secretary came in every hour to tell him about the latest phone calls, but all he did was wave his feelers at her and push his strange mechanical jaws in and out. Lucy’s father was a giant newt. Her mother had collected him from the river in the car, and now he was in the bath. He had to curve his jagged, high-crested tail slightly, to fit in. She was feeding him with cat food. That was a big problem, feeding these creatures, especially those still in the rivers.
Hogarth phoned home. His father was a shiny green frog, with a pulsing throat. He was down in the boggy rushes by the duckpond.
♥ And a mouth, a great cloudy cave of gaping mouth, slowly opened, as if it took a long breath. Then came another sob.
The cloud seemed to be one gigantic head, a shapeless, ragged sort of head, like a jellyfish, or like an octopus – spreading out into a vast, knotted tangle of cloudy legs, covering the entire landscape. Or like an immense hairy spider, whose legs spread out across its even more immense web, that lay over the land.
As they watched, the mouth opened wider. The cloud was now sobbing like a giant baby, with wide-open mouth – a mouth that opened wider and wider, squeezing the eyes shut. The four strong red beams from the eyes of the two iron giants plunged into the darkness of the gaping toad-like mouth of the great spider-cloud.
The sobs were now incredibly loud. The spider-face had come closer. It seemed to be resting its chin on the treetops of the wood below. Its row of eyes opened again and gazed woefully down at the two giants, and they heard:
The words were like the cloud, they filled the whole landscape yet they were blurred, smoky somehow. As if that whole sprawling web were some kind of aerial, transmitting the sounds.
The Iron Woman’s voice seemed normal, familiar, in comparison. Yet it was like thunder.
"First," she said, "confess who you are."
..The spider-cloud seemed to rear up. Its eyes bulged. Then it bellowed:
"I am the spider-god of Wealth. Wealth. Wealth. The spider-god of more and more and more and more money. I catch it in my web."
It glared furiously down, and shook the vast web. But the four red laser beams blazed into its eyes and it blinked. It screwed up its eyes and its mouth.
"Now tell us who you really are," thundered the Iron Woman.
The goblinish cloud snapped its wide, flat mouth. It seemed to bristle and grow even darker. Its eyes crowded close together and sheet lightnings flashed in them.
"I am the spider-god of Gain. The spider-god of winning at all costs. I catch the prize in my net."
And it reared up to a great height, and let out a tremendous laugh, shaking its web like a cloak the size of the country. The thing that had been groaning so painfully and sobbing so pitifully was laughing.
"Now you’ve got rid of your lies," thundered the Iron Woman, "confess who you really are."
.."It’s the Iron Woman doing her dance," cried Lucy. "Inside there. Listen."
"And that’s the Iron Man," cried Hogarth. "Beating his chest for a drum, keeping time."
The Cloud-Spider’s lips were opening wide, blubbery and squirming. Big tears squeezed out between the tightly closed eyelids, rolled down, and splashed through on to the town beneath.
"Mess," wailed the great face. "Mess."
"Who are you?" thundered the Iron Woman from deep inside. "Say it again." And her pounding dance-steps shook the hill in time to her words, while the Cloud-Spider jerked and contorted, like a rubber comedian’s face.
"I am Mess. I am Mess," came the sobbing wail.
"And who will clean you up?" came the Iron Woman’s voice, her words timed to her stamping dance-steps and the weird whanging boom that shook the hill. "Who will clean you up? Who? Who?"
"Mother," wailed the vast snail of a mouth.
"Tell us again. Who?"
"Mother will clean me up."
♥ But things had changed. For one thing, it was not only Lucy’s father whose hair had gone white. Every man who had been a fish, or a seal, or a water-bug, or a leech, now had white hair. Men who had been grizzled, or nearly grey, or grey, stared into their mirrors at their silvery white hair and cried: ‘Oh God, I look like Granny!’ or else ‘But my face isn’t any older, is it?’ And young men whose hair had been curly gold or glossy auburn brown or mousy hardly dared catch sight of themselves in their car mirror, or in a shop window. ‘It’s no wonder,’ they said to their wives or girlfriends. ‘What we went through was no joke. Worse than seeing a thousand ghosts! You’d have gone white too.’ Within days, hairdressers and chemists were out of hair dye.
But other things had changed for the better. Everybody realized straightaway that the terrible scream no longer blasted them when they touched each other. Instead they now heard it all the time, but only faintly – like a ringing in the ears. And strangely enough, it came and went.
It was easy to see what made it come. When you looked at the waste bin, it came noticeably stronger. And when you poured soap powder into the washing machine, it seemed to zoom in on you and go past very close, like a jet going over the house – but a jet powered with those screams. It was a bit of a shock. And when Mr Wells, with his little white moustache, looked at his stacked drums of toxic waste, it came nearly full strength, a painful screech in his ears, like something coming straight at him, and he had to look away quickly.
So nobody could forget. Farmers stood in their fields, listening and thinking. Factory owners sat in their offices, listening and thinking. The Prime Minister sat with his Cabinet Ministers, listening and thinking – and whoever spoke, the others looked at the speaker’s weirdly white hair and listened more carefully, and thought more deeply.
They had all learned a frightening lesson.
♥ There were the Iron Woman and the Iron Man, sitting on the hilltop stones, among the cedars. The Iron Man had brought up the birdwatcher’s car out of the marsh. He was folding pieces of it into handy shapes. They seemed to be having a picnic together. Every trace of their scorching and burns had disappeared. In fact they seemed brighter than ever. The Iron Woman’s blue-black looked new-made. Lucy wondered if they had been polishing each other.