The Brass Squire, The Birch Witch

Aegis, the shield-hand, ventured on a quest
alongside his compeers, the Gran Stone squires,
each besotten with dreams to thus attest
the worth of their training, their hearts—the liars.

Twere young men spurred by the heat of their lungs
to ride Northeast and challenge the Black Knight,
all the while flapping their overproud tongues
and profiting on all peasants in sight.

But Aegis, the chaste, aspired to be more
than the snide squires with which he rode Northward,
sworn to the heroic tenets of yore,
of shield and sacrifice; not only sword.

So when an old hag pleaded for their aid
and his brethren mocked her bark-skinned face
and then left her in the woods, Aegis stayed;
the Brass Squire would deign to witness her case.

“The demoness stole my youth,” she complained,
“That demoness Vanus, her artful wiles
being vanity to all, her heart paned
with the glass to tempt all to their own guiles.”

Aegis knew the crone was a wily liar,
yet she seemed pitiful beneath her hood,
aggrieved as elders are ere they expire,
so he agreed to do as a man should.

He braved the birch woods and their mysteries,
seeking the glade-laid heart of the forest
while the Birch Witch recalled the histories
that the trees whispered far from the Nor’west.

“When in times when old was young, and death cried
as a newborn dropped from the cosmic cleft,
the World-Unfurled was neither far nor wide,
but was as a small peaceful patch of weft.

And no beast was a hunter, nor beast prey,
and the day stretched on with sunlight profound
nor darkened at the closing of the day,
but all was pure innocent, round and round.

For there were no beasts nor hearts nor desires
as the Weft lay smooth in its little square,
but soon life arose, from which there transpires
the wolf and the sheep, the fox and the hare.

And then I came, from up high, as an owl
to hunt amidst the moonlight and the birch,
screeching to silence even the wolf’s howl
and to make pellets of pelts from my perch.”

The Birch Witch laughed, then, and Aegis wondered
if he was a fool, her motives clearer,
but then came a glint of light that sundered
shadow from shadow—it was a mirror.

The demoness was tall, slender, a snake
with fine arms and legs and claws and a head
that looked almost womanly in its make,
but crowned in black horns, her smirking lips red.

But most striking of all was the gilt pane
embedded in her bark-scaled belly, fat,
for that mirror drew Aegis, as a rein,
and he could not but be spellbound by that.

Dismounting from his horse, Aegis stepped forth
with his sword forgotten in the saddle,
meanwhile the witch watched him, the haggard dwarf
warning that he should not let his wits addle.

Vanus, the demoness, spoke thereafter:
“Gaze, gentle squire, and witness thy desire,
for it is what thou most wish.” Her laughter
resounded through the glade in a great gyre.

In the molten mirror the squire beheld
the fancies of an ideal come to be,
but it was the deceit with which she veiled
the truth of his unconfessed vanity.

Aegis saw himself ornate with festoons,
gloried by men and women, one and all,
and beyond, his tale told on golden runes:
a song in every court and mead hall.

But the demoness lied, he knew too well,
for she smirked as oft the cruel squires did
just before they took to some fancy fell
and did what horrors honor should forbid.

Wroth, then, with himself and the other squires,
the Brass Squire lifted shield against the glass
fending off reflections of his desires
and smashing his dreams with his turtled brass.

The demoness screamed, as did her slayer,
for her demonic blood surged to scald skin,
melting his young face, layer by layer,
until he swooned unto oblivion.

When he awoke later, it was to pain,
his face a cocoon of loose cloth wrappings
while the Birch Witch advised him to refrain.
She said, “You’re not the strongest of saplings.”

She tended him for a time, with great care,
applying honey and sap to his face,
but though stronger, he was no longer fair,
nor had she regained her youth in its place.

“We both of us lost,” she told him, weeping,
“but you lost most of all, my poor young man.”
Aegis said nought for a long time, keeping
his griefs to himself, if but for a span.

“I am free,” he said, “free from dreams now past,
and though it aches alike my face, I yet
seek to be as shield made in fire to last,
branded to remind me lest I forget.

I am free to do as duty demands,
free from the temptations that slough like skin
peeled by your tender, careful hands, such hands
that could have slain me in the chance given.”

Then the Birch Witch and the Brass Squire both smiled,
smiles pained by the scars of Time and of War,
seeing one another true, unbeguiled,
and journeyed forth into the lands of yore.

Lost In Sand And Surf

Born at hightide, buried to the chin
among countless others on the beach,
shouting, coughing, the froth surging in
to drown all within its lounging reach.

Openmouthed to sing my song aloud,
I receive a swig of salty surf,
sputtering words, too much like the crowd,
our voices a chorus without worth.

Where are those who dig free from the sand,
those who escape the insensate tide?
They rise from these deep holes and can stand
in sunlight, moving with a strong stride.

Still, the rest of us remain entombed
while waves wash over the thoughtless trend,
never heard, never seen, each one doomed
to scream into the surf without end.

Ah, but could I not dig myself out
by merit of my mouth and its bite,
by my teeth, by grit and bit and bout
to lessen the sand that holds me tight?

Or is that sand not of the hourglass
and, so, the holding hole that is Time?
Do those who are dug out truly pass
beyond, or are those lands but birdlime?

Customary Wear

The attire of ideals ill-fit
in times of turmoil, times of want,
when hunger loosens a belt till it
slips to the ground, and we are gaunt,
nought but haggard skin, brittle bones,
starved from famines unbeholden
to kings sitting on their grand thrones
or prayer books long grown olden.
No, we waste thinner and clothing
slips off—robes, uniforms, and suits,
each badge, medal, and just-so thing
once honored by waxed marching boots
to give the semblance of order,
of hierarchy, place, power,
enforcing each make-believe border
between so-and-so in his tower.
The cufflinks slip off the narrowed wrist
like overlarge shackles from a beast
and the noblest scion cannot resist
the promise of the scantiest feast.
He springs, shedding old pretenses
like a Winter pelt cumbering
his hunt in Summer, his senses
overwhelmed after slumbering.
Even ladies doff their dresses,
their waists too small for bodices
as they prowl, twigs in their tresses,
wild-eyed like pagan goddesses,
seeking the next morsel to eat
to sate the pit between their ribs,
etiquette lost, thinking of meat
rather than wedding rings and cribs.
And children—children become ghouls
perching over impromptu graves,
soiled, feral, clutching bloody tools
while sheltering in charnel caves
to lick at cleaved skulls long bereft
of sustenance, the gray matter
drained, sucked to dry dust, nothing left,
though the children grow no fatter.
And so the ideals are piled high
like clothing for the End-Times pyre,
burning, smoke blackening the sky
as the starved and the cold aspire
to make a feast of their brethren—
naked, emaciated, stripped
by the hunger pangs and the ken
bestowed by the maw of the crypt.

Pearls Of Wisdom

Gautama sits in his golden cloister,
mouth shut like a tight, complacent oyster,
silent, his shiny pearls clamped in himself
like a greedy man hoarding his vast wealth.
But what does the Buddha know, anyway?
He was nigh-thirty on that fateful day
when he rode forth into his father’s realm
on a grand chariot, a crown his helm.
He saw suffering thitherto denied
unto him while he long sheltered inside
amidst the opulence of his palace,
his life a draught from the golden chalice.
The bitter dregs were apparent, at last,
though he was still blinded by his high caste.
He saw an old man, a sick man, the dead,
and an ascetic, and though highborn-bred
he still worried about himself, of course,
(not others), and he wondered if the source
for removing such pains was self-denial.
So he sat under a tree for a while,
forty-nine days, they claim, though I do doubt
he sat that long, for he was bound to spout
about how great he was, how he alone
would discover Moksha, all on his own,
and he had to expel his piss and poo
so his bowels could be enlightened, too.
Be that as it may, his lotus soon gaped
and he saw Nirvana when he escaped
from the world’s pains, yet returning to preach
to any poor peasant within his reach,
saying, “You, too, can escape rebirth’s wheel
if you would only submit, bow, and kneel
and deny yourself less than what you now own,
which is already little, and on loan,
but as a prince I can tell you the worth
of such possessions on this fickle earth.
Life is suffering! The world is a trap!
Deny yourself—drink the bodhi tree’s sap!”
Most people shrugged, or only rolled their eyes,
and continued their work, already wise
to the ways of the world, to the hard truths
the prince could not learn from beneath the roofs
of his palace, his birthright, his clam shell,
that privileged heaven devoid of hell.
And then he began to raise his temples,
spreading his message like pox-born pimples,
no doubt using his princely position
to thwart other ascetics, his mission
privileged by connections to the courts
throughout the land, favors, toady cohorts,
his franchise spreading like a fast-food chain
or death-cult concerned with its earthly reign.
But he let go of some earthly trifles,
like his wife and child, that which oft stifles
a cult leader when he wants a fresh start,
free from the past—pure in his holy heart.
But Gautama could not shake his wife loose,
for earthly bonds are stronger than the noose
and will follow a man into his grave,
yet he was, if anything, a shrewd knave,
and said that women could not be allowed,
and, thus, his wife was lost among the crowd.
But after many complaints from his aunt,
Siddhartha did, eventually, recant,
saying, “Women can be nuns, I suppose,
but you are lesser than monks, because bros
come before hoes, and so you must obey
the lowliest monk, and do what they say.”
Then Gautama’s cousin rose against him,
saying Gaut was corrupt, given to whim,
and partook of meat, despite Buddhist laws
stating beasts could not be slain just because
monks and nuns hankered for pork or for fowl,
but only incidentally, somehow.
(What a roundabout loophole to ensure
you could eat sentient life and remain pure!)
But this would be your undoing, buddha,
not unlike Nagas and the Garuda
as the bird stamps claws downward to pin them
as fangs bite upward to sting with venom.
For you, too, hankered for non-vegan food
and though you forbid harm to beasts, your mood
was for pork, which was brought to you forthwith—
you ate it without so much as a sniff
and thereafter fell quite ill, your belly
sloshing and tossing, your bowels smelly,
taken to the grave by a bit of pig,
which is ironic for someone so big
in the world’s pantheon of myths and gods,
your shadow looming large, against the odds,
since you were not meant to be a being
at all, nor ego, nor soul, but fleeing
matter, space, and time, freed from such rebirth
that continues to populate the earth.

But speak, buddha, and let us hear the clink
of the pearls, of what you happen to think
is best for us peasants beneath your throne—
tell us what you think, what you alone
discovered after leaving your shelter
and saw, at long last, the helter-skelter
of Life, of the world at large, and its woes;
tell us what it is, naif prince, you suppose
is the source of our suffering, tell us
what we already know, be not jealous
of your unique viewpoint, your perspective
on Life, the existential elective.
I should like to hear the clink of your pearls
when you speak and your lacquered tongue unfurls.

Spiral

The snail shell glows, amber at dusk,
a small helix on the hot road—
was it dropped here, this inert husk,
forgotten by a passing toad?
Silent, unmoving, a snail shell
spirals inward, outward, a gyre
tracing Nature’s secrets, the Braille
of tornadoes, whirlpools, desire.
The helix shows what we know
as the whorl spins without motion:
what is above, too, is below,
the vortex an innate notion.
It is a spiral galaxy,
a paradox of space and form,
of rise and fall, a fallacy
of the exception, and the norm.

Entropy nibbles at the shell
like a toad fond of gastropod,
but no amount of life can quell
the hunger of that endless god.