A Car Crash In Phases

The devil is in the details,
and the decals:
you work for
G4S Security,
(“Securing Your World”)
but then
while minding your own business
on another workaday workday
along comes
catastrophic chaos
careening into your lane,
headlong, because of a
fishtailing blowout,
and you know, intimately, that security
does not exist beyond the
abstractions,
the catchy slogans,
the marketing gimmicks,
and the government placebos
in a world overripe with
unthinking daredevils,
unplanned plot devices
and shitty writing prompts.

There is blood, and there are
cries of existential pain, terror,
as the newborn emerges from the
crushed womb, the
airbag yolk
in the center of the
sudden head-on collision.
Flopping on the ground,
fetal position,
you shiver in fear
of the new reality you have been
born to,
exposed in the clinical light
of an indifferent sun.
The midwives arrive,
sirens wailing,
and bind you down
to the shaky stretcher
for your bumpy high-speed delivery.

Thank whichever god you like
for that natural drug,
adrenaline,
but when the entheogen fades away
and the razorwire of pain spirals
up your broken ankle,
you might just sell your soul
to the highest bidder,
or any bidder,
to make it uncoil
its pythian grip
and let slough off
what now seems a burdensome gobbet
of agony.
Amputate the foot
and burn it on the altar
of a heathen god,
if only to exorcize that insatiable
demon
gnawing at the twisted ankle.

Trauma Center chaos.
Flatliner prima donna
taking center-stage
on the heli-pad,
airlifted above the
ambulance peasantry.
And now this
6’4″ cop-killer wannabee
weeping and cursing in turns, chest
full of vainglory from a police officer’s
answering retort
of gunfire.
What are his colors?
Gang or
gangrene?
Reeks of rot as he curses
his caretakers.
He will hold his tongue
in solemn silence
when the undertaker comes.
Meanwhile you try to use your
Zen training
to calm the vibrating crescendo of
panic
swelling in your brain
while you wait for the trauma center
to set your foot
on the straight and narrow path again.

Pretty nurses and
polite surgeons
like long-lost friends
always welcoming another companion
into their parlor games,
yet
they have played
Cat’s Cradle
with stainless steel wires
and you,
silly you,
somehow caught your
foot
in the halo-rimmed web.
It is a medeival torture device,
but also the only hope you have
to save that
limp, wayward-flopping piece of meat
at the end of your leg.
A thankless task it serves
as you curse its barbarous efficiency.

Drip, drip, drip,
the IV dripping
endlessly
whereas your mouth is
cotton dry,
your cottonmouth fangs dripping
eager with vengeful venom
to strike out at the
chirp-chirp-chirping of a
bird-brained neighbor’s
shrill-shrieking phone
every five minutes;
a nocturnal warbler
in need of birdshot.

And yet,
despite the devils and the
demons
and the heathen gods,
there are fallen angels
that choose to serve mankind
selflessly
upon the earth—
those braving the
shit and piss,
the blood and pus,
the wafting williwaws between
festering flesh,
the violent outbursts of pained creatures
lashing out in the throes of suffering
and to whom these offenses
are endured in impersonal deference.
These are the angels
to be found on earth
if you are only strong enough
to find them within yourself.

Curves, Curses, and Cloved Hooves

Dwayne Padgett had loathed his wife of six years,

thinking the woman of less worth than all

his flock of sheep, sty of pigs, heads of steers,

her voice unwelcome as a raven’s call,

and out of his wife Dwayne took not one joy

as she was too lean and plain in his view,

saying, “God!  You might as well be a boy,

you’re so flat!  Worse than a new-shaven ewe!”

Yet, his wife, Maud, was of a keen patience

which was as sure as the long Winter’s thaw—

silent and abiding, she was, with sense

enough to read the mood in a man’s jaw.

Sure enough she needed it, crowned often

with fists to the head like knots on an oak,

and so many times it seemed to soften

her tone and tongue whensoever she spoke.

Maud spoke little, but worked hard on the farm,

sunup to sundown, never relenting—

growing leaner, rougher of hand and arm

which she employed in prayer, repenting.

Dwayne snarled, “I’ve had enough of you, old crone!”

his disgust brimming over each nightfall

and he thrashed her worse than all else his own

sleeping placidly in each hay-stuffed stall.

The Appalachian hills and flooding vales

had no fertile soil to bear much harvest,

withered were the vines, and wispy the bales,

that succored Dwayne’s farm, as if from the breast

of Maud herself, drooping dry at the teat,

and barren, too, the womb as clay-cloyed earth

so that each year’s crop seemed only replete

with Famine’s tending of its weed-sewn turf.

“This land is as useless as you!” said Dwayne,

“You bag of skin and bones!  You buzzard bird!”

Maud held her tongue, and only cringed in pain

as her husband spat each bilious word,

for her manner was meek, silent, and mild,

brow-beaten now for six years of marriage;

more whipped than a horse many times as wild

and would be thus unto her death carriage.

Dwayne thought of other women, like Rose Hall,

the pretty wife of a wealthy neighbor

who attended the local church, St. Paul,

and whose bust made many men’s breath labored.

“She is as curvy as the hills,” Dwayne said,

heedless of whether his wife heard or not.

“And I’d love to see that body in bed

with those curves all pink and flustered and hot.”

Dwayne shuddered with excitement at the swells

of her breasts and hips neath her modest dress.

“Oh yes, she’s as buxom as a ship’s sails,”

he said, hands moving as if to caress

the figure of the woman he desired

until Mrs Hall and her husband left,

Dwayne watching them leave, his eyes and thoughts mired

in curves and heft and her undisclosed cleft.

He contrasted Rose Hall with his wife, Maud,

reproaching the latter her narrow build,

saying, “I fault it as a slight, by God,

of your slight bones, and, if Heaven so willed

that you be struck dead, by flu or folly,

I’d appraise it a loss less than spoilt souse

and would dump you in the troth, by golly!

Then again, your bones wouldn’t feed a mouse!

Speak, damn you!” he demanded, his big fist

slamming the table so the plates clattered.

“What’s wrong?  Tongue-tied?  Hogtied?  Or are you pissed?

Afraid I’d hit harder if you chattered?”

Timidly, Maud parted her trembling lips

and, just as soon, Dwayne slammed his fist again.

He said, “Your tongue’s as useless as your hips!

What good are you barren women to men?”

Maud wept, then, but also managed to speak,

saying, “I cook and clean for you.  I try

to love you.”  Her trembling voice became weak

and she continued, “But you hate me.  Why?”

Dwayne’s jaw was as stiffened as wet leather,

and he spoke as if the leather might tear.

“I hate you because we are together,

and, by God, if you died I would not care.

Wish I’d never married you for this land

because you’re a dogchain keeping me down.

I want a woman like Rose, and can’t stand

the look of you and your dowdy old frown.”

That night, as with many nights before it,

Maud went to bed weeping while Dwayne stayed up,

sitting on the front porch, cigarette lit,

and drinking bitter beer dregs from his cup.

But unlike other nights, Dwayne felt cinder

in his heart, a hateful spark in his life

and—feeding that fire with ready tinder—

he aspired to kill his woebegone wife.

And so Dwayne ventured at the witching hour

into the bedroom, where Maud was asleep,

and, holding a shovel, his face grave, dour,

prepared a soul for the Reaper to reap.

Yet, Maud never could sleep a restive night

and was still awake as he approached her;

she saw the shovel, his cigarette light,

and surmised his purpose ere he poached her.

She shoved him aside with surprising strength

and fled the house swiftly, through the black elms

of the forest that fringed the farm, at length

coming to a ring of mushrooms, like helms.

No refuge found she, crouching on her knees

and watching for the light of Dwayne’s lantern

as it neared, flinging shadows from the trees,

the wan glow flashing and swaying in turn.

Crouching, Maud hurried away from the light,

and flung herself deeper into the sticks,

cutting her legs, her arms, her head, her gown,

bleeding from her wounds, and pimpled with ticks

till she tripped over roots and tumbled down.

Down and down a hill she rolled, like a bird

hitting a windshield and twirling around,

coming to rest, at last, without a word,

breathless for a long moment on the ground.

Over yonder she saw the light, faded

by both distance and darkness, far afield,

then she rose, slowly, weeping, then waded

through the underbrush where the shadows spilled.

To a clearing she came, far down below

the Appalachian knobs, and the full moon,

limping, sobbing, not knowing where to go,

but knowing she needed to leave, and soon.

And then she was not alone—there stood Dwayne

dim in the moonlight, hunting rifle raised,

taking aim with the same eye whose disdain

found her figure wanting when it appraised.

A single gunshot rang out through the vale

between the hills and woods of God’s country—

no scream, nor moan; just a soft sight to tell

the feelings of one whose woes were sundry.

She fell with as little sound or complaint

as she lived, and Dwayne buried her swiftly,

not offering prayer to Christ or saint

on her behalf, nor headstone, but thriftily

saw the evil done, and soon forgotten

after returning uphill to the farm,

wanting more drink to celebrate his life,

imagining Rose with him, arm in arm

and loin to loin as his consummate wife.

For three days heavy rains poured thereafter

and Dwayne drank himself silly as a clown

in a rodeo, giddy with laughter

as his bull-bashed barrel spins round and round.

Come the fourth day the rains ceased their weeping,

though the skies remained a grim gravestone gray

and mists rose from the hills like ghosts creeping

through air chill and clammy, all night and day.

Hangover to hangover, drinking more

to chase the hair of the dog with moonshine

till he had no alcohol left to pour

to drown out the world—whiskey, beer or wine.

Dwayne was desperate for church, and so went,

not seeking salvation in Sunday’s Mass;

nor seeking his Christ so as to repent,

but Rose Hall and her figure to harass.

A shameful incident followed, of course,

and Dwayne was expelled with a bloody nose,

his brains sloshing in his skull, his remorse

only being pride at the trade of blows.

The pain saw him home, (a bitter consort),

and, having no drink for consolation,

nor wife to cook a meal, nor make such sport,

pitied himself and his lonely station.

All day moping, Dwayne drifted house to barn,

barn to house, cursing the cows, pigs, and sheep

till night fell and, head feeling stuffed with yarn,

he sat down on the porch and fell asleep.

Dwayne woke to strange laughter later that night

and a white glow through the black, mist-veiled trees.

Bleary-eyed, he stood and followed that light,

a sleepwalker through dreamy reveries.

He felt as if floating as he followed

the milky radiance of the forest

and he never thought to question what glowed;

no more than a baby its mother’s breast.

There, in the bosom of those bristly hills,

he found a woman dancing in a ring

of fat mushrooms with white caps and brown frills,

dancing and laughing, singing and squealing.

“By the love of a man whose love is flesh

and by the soul of a man steeped in skin,

make love as a pagan to his fetish

to manifest the sweet children of sin.”

What she sang, Dwayne did not care while entranced

thinking of nought except her swells and squeals

as she danced and jiggled, her curves enhanced

with her fruitful heft as she kicked her heels.

Her wide hips rocked to a fairy’s music,

her breasts bouncing and swinging in rhythm,

and Dwayne salivated at the dew, thick

on her teats, lactating from within them.

His brain’s marbles were as pearls before swine

as he gazed upon that buxom stranger

and heard her squealing laughter, so fine

that he felt no sense of fear or danger.

She had color to her skin: pink and peach,

not brown or leathery, such as had Maud,

and curves aplenty, formed as if to teach

Man the way to lust, as a dowsing rod.

She danced away from him, graceful and coy,

as though to stir his lust to a frothy boil,

and he followed, stumbling like a lost boy,

keeping apace, however slick the soil.

At last she surrendered, lounging anon

in a bed made of Autumn’s soft bounty,

and Dwayne fell on her, rutting thereupon

in a clamor heard county to county.

The two of them were as a two-backed beast,

Dwayne rutting and moaning as if to bust

and she squealing and squirming without cease

beneath Dwayne’s amorous, clamorous lust.

There were folds of pink flesh overflowing

and breasts to each hand, to Dwayne’s mouth, and more

than he could fondle, the hot flesh growing,

her body like teeming tides on his shore—

never ebbing, nor ever abating

as she rallied in ardor and measure

that were as unrestrained as beasts mating,

but twisted by a man’s pain and pleasure.

The dew came, and the chill morn, and Dwayne, too,

waking alone and shivering, stretched on

the matted, wallowing leaf floor, no clue

of his new lover and where she had gone.

Chilled to his bones, Dwayne stumbled along

and headed home as if a long-lost lord,

yet still listening for the squealing song

of the woman with the curves of a gourd.

Coming home, Dwayne found his cattle scattered

and his sheep huddling together in fear,

their eyes wide to the whites, their fleece splattered

with the blood of the dead sheep, laying near.

The dead sheep were gored, eaten, disemboweled,

their entrails strewn in messy disarray;

seeing the dead, Dwayne stomped and raged and howled

to see his flock halved.  He shouted, “You’ll pay!”

The barn had been smashed as if by a storm

and was strewn in splintered piles, near a ton.

Dwayne inspected the blood, and found it warm,

so he put on some clothes and fetched his gun,

following the blood trail into the wild,

rage as a crimson mist clouding his gaze,

and the white mists not yet dispersed, nor mild

as his warpath wended through the dawn’s haze.

A familiar route, it was, and yet

he did not realize till it was too late,

coming to a grave he hoped to forget,

ringed round with mushrooms in a figure eight.

A monstrous sow nosed about the fresh grave,

her beady brown eyes looking up at him—

the pig sniffed, snorted and with a smile gave

a squealing laugh that shook Dwayne, limb to limb.

Taken aback by its size, and the blood

that lined the sow’s tusk-jagged mouth, Dwayne gasped,

trying not to look at the charnel mud

and raised his rifle.  His shaky voice rasped,

“You damned beast!  I’ll learn you good for killing

and eating what’s mine!  Gut you, hoof to tail!”

Dwayne aimed his rifle, his heart now thrilling

in thoughts of the pork he could eat and sell.

But before Dwayne could even fire his gun,

the sow rose up on her hind-legs, just-so,

and danced and squealed and leapt into a run

across the vale, as fast as she could go.

By and by, Dwayne overcame his dismay,

but the sow had vanished into the hills,

and so Dwayne walked home, all along his way

mumbling to himself and trembling with chills.

That night Dwayne dreamt of the sow in the vale

and his lover who sang in the forest,

and he saw them in turns, swell unto swell,

and rutted atop them both—both abreast.

Each morning Dwayne would wake in a cold sweat,

knowing he had lain with them once again,

and knowing, also, that there were two, and yet

the same—the same, as they had always been.

Meanwhile the wild hog ate all of his sheep,

one by one till none remained in the pens

and Dwayne feared waking someday from his sleep

to find her eating him up, feet to shins;

nor did she stop with sheep, but ate each beast

belonging to Dwayne’s farm, nor the pigs,

nor the cattle, one by one, a fine feast

as the giant sow crunched their bones like twigs.

Always at night she struck, while Dwayne lay

and dreamt of her touch, her kiss, her embrace,

not waking till the coming of the day,

with a shrill scream, sweat christening his face

as if baptized in such fetid waters

as would roll slow in a putrid river

swarming with Lilith’s vile, temptress daughters—

dazed, Dwayne rose and stumbled, all aquiver

with disgust at himself, and the creature

that caused such hell-loosed chaos in his life,

vowing each morning to be the teacher

and butcher the beast with gun, saw, and knife.

But for all his cursing and swearing such,

Dwayne never could glimpse that large porcine head,

nor could he wake from the amorous touch

of his lover in his widower’s bed.

All that remained was the late morning mess

both in the barnyard and in his britches,

and soon he prayed much more, and swore much less,

thinking it the work of hell-bound witches.

Despairing of earthly means, Dwayne applied

to the priest, pleading that he must invoke

the angels of Heaven to take his side,

but the priest frowned, crossed himself, and thus spoke:

“What sins you sow, you reap, and reap you will.”

Dwayne tried to beg, but the priest grimly said,

“Where is your wife, Dwayne?  Is she well…or ill?”

He scowled at Dwayne’s silence and shook his head.

“What sins you sow, you reap,” he repeated,

“And pay sevenfold for wickedness done.

Whatever this beast eats has been meted

by God himself, the Father and the Son.”

“By all that is holy!” Dwayne wept.  “Help me!

You gotta’ come and expel that demon!”

But Dwayne was, himself, expelled, and swiftly

after confessing guilt of his semen.

“You made congress with a beast?!” the priest roared.

“You are damned!  Damned!  Leave!  Now!  Get out of here!”

Dwayne cursed the Catholic priest, and his Lord,

and hastened home, hankering for a beer.

No beer.  No whiskey.  No moonshine or gin.

No friends.  No allies.  No solace.  Nor god

to save him from his choices, from his sin,

nor drink to carry him away to Nod.

“All I wanted were some curves!” he bellowed,

kicking over the dresser where Maud’s gowns

hung thin, tenuous, once white, now yellowed

by dust and tears and years and silent frowns.

To see those gowns, in all their stains and frays,

was to see Maud dead in her shallow grave,

her nightgown bloody, her bones thin, her gaze

vacant and dark as a Stygian cave.

Enraged, Dwayne tore the gowns, screaming, “You witch!

Leave me be!  You and your bones are buried!”

He tore her dresses apart, cloth from stitch,

including the dress worn when they married.

This latter dress he tore with great relish,

like a sharp-clawed cat on a pillow pile,

although, at length, even this seemed hellish

to do after he went on for a while.

“I can’t abide it no more!” Dwayne declared.

“I’m taking my last stand, once and for all!”

He fetched his rifle and, as his rage flared,

he stomped out toward Maud’s grave without stall.

Through veils of mist that curtained wayward woods

like the funeral shrouds of those bereft

and misty-eyed beneath their tattered hoods,

phantoms watched from beyond the weave and weft.

If Dwayne sensed them while in his reckless ire,

he did not care, but marched on in a craze,

his mind wild with violence and the fire

of his rage—all else was lost in the haze.

Dwayne was not quiet as he stomped about,

and the porcine beast knew of his approach,

the bulky behemoth barreling out,

large and fast as a thunderous stagecoach.

Dwayne fired his rifle with a frantic aim

and caught a long tusk along his torso;

man and beast tumbled together, each maimed;

man wounded much, but beast much, too—more so.

Yet, the sow rose first, and then limped away

as her bristly neck bled from a deep hole;

Dwayne roused to pain, at length, but did not lay,

but hobbled on, enraged, his entire soul

fixated as upon cross-hairs, his eye

rolling upon the blood the boar had bled,

which, beholding, did also testify

that the devilry could—would— soon be dead.

Through his ragged breaths, he laughed and rejoiced,

saying, “I will eat you whole, hoof to nose,

heart and soul.”  He laughed again, scarecrow-voiced

and limped forth to see this curse to its close.

Down the hills and through the woods he wended,

coming at length to the field where Maud lay

and where the sow lay, belly distended

with the animals she had made her prey.

The beast snorted softly, vastly content,

sleeping as her wounded ribs rose and fell;

Dwayne did not wait, but raised his gun and spent

a bullet from its smoking, hollow shell.

Yet, after the smoke had lifted Dwayne saw

a sight that chilled him to his deep marrow,

a sight against Nature’s most basic Law—

blasphemous offspring; a man-faced farrow

suckling at their mother’s milk-swollen teats,

undisturbed by the stark, sudden stillness

of their mother, or the loud heartbeats

of Dwayne Padgett in the throes of illness.

The sow now dead, and the piglets blind,

Dwayne staggered away, thinking himself free

from his sins and his past, all left behind

in the gore of that flesh-borne heresy.

He limped on a while, bleeding from his gut

where the sow had kissed him with vengeful tusk,

but soon he wearied, weakened by the cut

and crumbled down like a lax scarecrow’s husk.

He slept for a time, then woke to the sound

of babies cooing and giggling at rest,

seeing the piglets gathered all around,

nestling his wound for succor, as a breast.

Too weak to scream, Dwayne moaned a short prayer

for mercy from the beasts at his bowels,

but no mercy came, and long was it ere

the snouts stopped digging like trenchant trowels.

At last fed to surfeit, they wandered off

to grow and breed among those bristly hills,

and though some Appalachians may yet scoff

at the strange notion, others know the chills

of a breaking branch or the odd footfall

while walking Kentucky’s wilderness trails—

to hear the squeal, or laugh, or caterwaul

of Dwayne Padgett’s kin in the knobs and vales.

The Lighthouse

You do not
warn of danger
when you virtue-signal from atop your
white-collar ivory tower;
rather,
the desperate blink of your
gaslighting
is but a distraction, is but a
siren’s call
for those of us in
straitened channels of
blue-collar shoals.
Your flashing guidance
blinds us
as much as the dark of night
and so
Black and White all
capsize together
in the coral teeth of your
treasure-strewn whitewater
judgment.
No,
you are not on the
lookout
for anyone’s well-being
but your own
as you gnaw the unified bones
of the shipwrecked dead.

Vacation

Scott saw the lake from the highway,

sprawling at a lower elevation beyond the

guard rails and the trees that rose between.

Its green surface was still, untroubled,

silent,

undisturbed by the windless afternoon

while Scott drove by, going home from the

buzzing, banging, screeching noises of the

Amazon warehouse; the rush as he dashed

from one row to another, scrambling to pick

and pluck and rummage another profligate

item, Made In China, that was as needful

to the average consumer

as a scarf in summertime,

trying to meet the quota demanded of him,

minute by minute,

hour by hour,

day by day

unto endless days.

Going home to an empty apartment

after a twelve-hour shift

was like

dumping himself into a box

in accordance to his bin number

and mailing himself out the next morning

once again

to the same Amazon warehouse

to pick and pluck and drop all over again.

He wanted a vacation.

A real vacation.

He wanted to go to that lake —

not to fish

or to camp

or to swim,

but to plunge his car

headlong into the depths of it and let

that placid stillness envelop him

as he sank to the bottom,

apart from the hectic human world,

uncaring,

detached,

lungs filling up

while his life emptied out,

and the tranquil bosom of the lake

sealing up, like a wound —

reconciling him within its serene silence.

The real horror of his

life

was that it went on and on and on.

The Highwayman

The moon was a coin all aglow with gold

in the swirling clouds of that chilly night

and the crooked tree by that wooded road

was a hand clutching in vain at Fae light.

Mounted on a black horse with a black name

was that blackguard and killer, Bill O ’Keefe,

whose gallop brought fear to all men the same

and whose fat purse ate with a dragon ’s teeth.

Pistols and daggers and swords were his friends

that he kept keen to ply his devil ’s trade

and all other friends came to treacherous ends,

along that old road in graves freshly laid.

O ’Keefe wore black boots and a riding coat

and black hat with black plume in the brim,

and black mask, his black beard curled like a goat,

his cufflinks black at the end of each limb.

Scarce were pickings along that road of late

for words were swift as birds when winged with sins

and Bill wanted like a collection plate

in the famine months when a snowstorm spins.

Bill bit his lip until the skin broke and bled,

tasting iron in that October breeze

while the crowned owls stood watch, just overhead,

their hungry eyes spotting small prey with ease,

and he heard the gibbering marsh, the beasts

alike to him in the hunter ’s grand game,

stalking and eating their fill of such feasts

as Nature ordains, without thoughts of shame.

Was that a footstep?  A giggle?  Grunt?  Squeal?

Bill did not know, his fluttering black eyes

like crows flapping at the scent of a meal:

carrion delights in a victim ’s cries.

Bill waited till the gallop neared the tree,

then he struck his horse to spur it to haste,

yet found a rider before him who did not flee —

a man in livery pale as bone paste.

Glowing like the moon above, the fellow

parted his lips in a smile, pearls agleam,

his hair golden, curly, his mien mellow

as if he was passing through a sweet dream.

Taken aback, Bill stared with mouth agape,

confused by the aristocrat ’s bearing

and that the man did not try to escape,

but stood as stone afore the storm, daring

with demeanor and command likewise steeped

in ancient kingdoms beyond petty Man

except in glimpses and dreams such as peeped

in the realm of Sleep, at a frugal span.

At length, Bill leveled pistol at the lord

and said, “Turn out your pockets and your purse

or I ’ll run you through with bullet and sword.

If you try any tricks, I ’ll do much worse. ”

The fair-haired lord dismounted gracefully

in one smooth motion, like a squirrel,

and said, “Indeed, I shall, and faithfully

as a green knight seeking to hew the burl. ”

The lord unstrung a pouch from his saddle

and offered it to the ne ’er-do-well thief,

unstringing the pouch, which clinked and rattled —

the only music which pleased Bill O ’Keefe.

Crooked tree above, crooked man below,

O ’Keefe snatched the pouch away with a swipe,

tantalized by the gleaming golden glow

of such coins so foreign in face and type.

The lord said, “Of all such you may have, sir,

being possessed thereby, and by this path. ”

Here the lord gestured.   “Wherefore possessed, cur,

you shall reckon debts owed to greed and wrath. ”

Bill misliked such words and looked up with scorn

from the gold he had snared with his misdeed

only to find the lord gone, as if bourne

away with a wind, both rider and steed.

Uncanny things meant naught to Bill O ’Keefe

as long as gold jingled in his gloved hands,

so he laughed aloud, proud in the belief

that he was the best thief in all the lands.

Taking rein of his black horse once again,

he led the beast out from behind the oak

and climbed atop it, holding his gold like his sin

and struck up a gallop, but someone spoke:

“Damn you, Bill O ’Keefe, ” a hoarse voice whispered,

“damn your thieving heart and your greedy eyes! ”

The black horse startled and kicked at each word,

tumbling Bill off to lay him out lengthwise.

The horse bolted, spilling the pouch of gold

while like a kelpie frenzied with its thirst

along that moon-flooded, tree-cluttered road,

each coin rolling to a stop, now reversed,

no longer showing a face of features

foreign to human lands and human kin,

but a skull brimming with insect creatures

dining on the festering flesh within.

“Damn you, you dumb beast! ” Bill hollered so loud

that his wrathful voice spurred the spooked horse on

at a faster sprint than the dark allowed

till beast came to grief down the bluff beyond.

Not hearing the scream of the horse, Bill turned

again to the coins scattered here and there,

and crawled after them while the moonlight burned

on the gold, agleam in that chilly air.

To the nearest coin O ’Keefe crawled and knelt

like a sinner seeking within a church

deliverance from the sins he has dealt

in years past, wronging angels on their perch,

but Bill sought not forgiveness while kneeling —

rather, the gold mesmerized like a sidhe

afloat with rainbow wings unfurled, wheeling

around his now-hatless head, tauntingly.

Yet, as Bill reached for the coin nearest him

a hand grasped it first, out from neath the earth,

its bones white and gray, and so, too, the limb

that rose like a shoot from the leaf-strewn turf.

A head emerged, all rotten and gaping

from a withered jaw, hung aslant the face,

and the tongue lolled freely, as if aping

human speech, some soil sprinkling from that place.

“Bill O ’Keefe, ” it said at last.   “You villain! ”

You slew me for six pence, and not one more!

And for that debt I shall be repaid when

I drag you low, beyond Hell ’s brimstone door! ”

Bill O ’ Keefe recoiled from the corpse, screaming out,

but not in terror —rather in great rage

for he would share coin with no brag-about

and tried to snatch it from that bony cage.

“What good was your life? ” Bill growled, “but a pence?

Count yourself lucky as been worth so much,

for you had no value, and less so sense,

to have been riding alone, late and such. ”

The corpse ’s jaw gawped so wide in dismay

that it swung off the hinge, gasping, “You brute! ”,

meanwhile Bill filched the coin and made his way

to other coins, nestled within a root.

Or it seemed a root, but when Bill neared it

a bony hand emerged, and then a skull

webbed with a bridal veil, each black socket

full of worms writhing in the hollow hull.

No tongue to speak, neither had she the need,

for Bill knew her as his own from years past

and said, “You had less wealth than you had breed,

which is why our marriage, dear, did not last. ”

A banshee shriek escaped those rotten teeth

and Bill only laughed, plucking back the coins

as she crescendoed in her wailing grief;

he said, “Swiftly taken, as were your loins. ”

Many were the coins, and many the dead!

Bill had a reunion earning his wealth,

each coin raising a victim from their bed

so O ’Keefe could appraise them and their health.

A nobleman here and a peasant there,

Bill was not prejudiced in his slayings,

and had he the chance, he would have had care

to kill dukes and bishops and popes and kings.

Alas, no such prey chanced his hunting grounds

which was why he took whatever he might,

buried all along that road, in their mounds,

not knowing what fool might intrigue his sight.

And there were, of course, those whom he despised,

whose disputes in bars had earned them his ire —

whom he killed, raping their wives while disguised

as a vicar to indulge his desire.

And those who were innocent, having done

nought to him or his own, nor another,

once sown in their graves, now sprouting as one

to crawl after him —him and no other.

“A sorry bunch of sour grapes you lot are, ”

Bill laughed, surrounded and yet still affixed

on the strange golden coins strewn here and far,

not concerned with the foul corpses betwixt.

“I did you each a favor, ” he said with a smile,

“for I saved you all from a cruel life

and the suffering it offers meanwhile,

so be thankful for the ol ’ Reaper ’s scythe. ”

Coin to coin he crawled like a supplicant,

nigh overtaken on perdition ’s road,

yet still his smile gleamed, and eye, without a hint

of fear about the victims he did goad.

A final coin, and a final sally —

“Alas, I must be on my way, ” he said,

rising to his feet with a fast rally,

“for I ’ve got gold in hand and dreams ahead,

and mustn ’t waste it on the likes of you. ”

He hobbled down the road, coins in his purse,

but turned about.   “As the French say, ‘Adieu. ’

Awful to be dead, but it could be worse. ”

Shrieks of outrage followed him down the road,

but Bill was too keen on the coins to hear,

whistling lively, and smiling like a toad,

as he dreamed of rum, wine, whisky, and beer

and the other things he would soon enjoy,

like mutton, girls, and a life of pleasure

spent doing as he pleased, like a young boy

enthroned in privilege and in leisure.

Yet, dust to dust is the way of the world,

and a man ’s wealth, too, no matter how vast,

and all at once, while a sudden wind whirled,

the coins faded to coppery leaves fast.

O ’Keefe gazed at the purse, his eyes agog —

he blinked and rubbed them, but to no avail,

for all the coins were gone, like prince to frog,

maiden weeping by the end of the tale.

Only, Bill never wept: he swore and kicked,

vowing revenge on the strange foreign lord,

for Bill could see that he had been thus tricked

and wished the man ’s blood to slather his sword.

So wrathful was the blackguard in his loss,

that he saw not where he was then going,

stepping off the bluff where the moonlight gloss

shimmered pale like an icy stream flowing —

an icy stream, and a Stygian stream,

for it took Bill O ’Keefe straight down to Hell

where he woke to an inferno that teemed

with imps, demons, Satan, Lilith, and Bael.

And there was the strange lord that Bill had robbed

standing afore him, a smirk so profound

in its malevolence that other men would have sobbed

to see it spread, like an infernal hound.

“Face to face with your sins, you have now come, ”

said the stranger.   “And coins have paid your way —

a princely sum, even in this kingdom,

but try to defend yourself, if you may. ”

“I offer no defense, ” Bill said, “except

the world itself, and its ways, which were made

without my counsel or consent, and kept

by tooth and claw and the patterns thus laid

by that harsh seamstress, Fate, a cruel witch

by whose hand all are designed and destined

to be king or peasant, down to a stitch —

so was I, bound by hem and trim and trend. ”

Bill O ’Keefe smirked, for he thought he had found

a defense most fateful, and a good ruse,

to protect his soul because all around

the throngs of Hell seemed very much confused.

“Just-so, ” the stranger said at last. “Forsooth,

we were banished for ingrained allegiance,

but the world, being so, and Fate and Truth,

does not expunge sins, despite your grievance,

for it is Fate who determines for all

and, just-so, you are predestined for Hell,

so regardless if you are a mere thrall,

her whim determines the end of your tale. ”

Bill argued, but the stranger would not hear.

“Like you, we are highwaymen in wait

and if by Fate you happen to pass near

we will take your soul, for that, too, is Fate. ”

“But that ’s not fair! ” Bill O ’Keefe cried aloud.

The whole of Hell resounded with laughter.

“Life ’s not fair, ” the Stranger said, “nor Death proud,

nor so fair or proud the Ever After. ”

And so the road the highwayman haunted

claimed him as he claimed many other souls —

he thought of the lives he took, and taunted,

as his soul was raked upon brimstone coals.