Slapdash

Far overhead,
the squirrel’s bed,
a slapdash nest
at the behest
of innate need
to feed and breed
in the oak tree,
precariously
thrown together
to withstand the weather,
just leaves and sticks,
not stones or bricks,
plotted by instinct,
twigs interlinked
in frenzied haste
before Winter’s waste.
To and fro
stop and go,
reddish squirrels
along limbs and burls,
ceaseless chatter,
pitter-patter
as acorns fall
in Autumn’s hall.

Handsome Blue Eyes, Immaculate Teeth

 The moon was bloated with moribund light as Phoebe walked along the desolate fields.  Jagged stalks gleamed with the first frost of the year, crunching beneath Phoebe’s boots.  Her shadow walked beside her, stretching out long and thin, as if mocking her short height with the taller figure she wished she possessed.  Phoebe was a vain creature, especially for her thirteen years of life, and while she would have rather worn more ladylike shoes when out and about, even she bowed to the necessity of muck boots when in search of Devil’s Fen.

 “Perfectly white teeth,” Phoebe said to herself.  “Immaculate teeth.  The best teeth in the whole county.  And handsome blue eyes.”

 The fields curved upward upon the hilly countryside, as if swelling like the seas at the beck of the moon and arching slowly like a groggy cat upon waking.  The slow rise and fall of the slopes beneath Phoebe’s boots mirrored her breath.  She scarcely trusted her own breath in the unsettling silence of that hour, for it rose phantasmally before her in the Autumn chill.  She could see her immediate surroundings well enough beneath the moon, but the distant trees were black fringes from which wolves, or worse, might come bounding swiftly to catch her unawares.

 This was a pilgrimage, she told herself; a pilgrimage for the sake of Love.  She would not be deterred, come dragon or demon or damnation.  The hag had promised Phoebe that she would have her wish fulfilled, and yet Phoebe felt misgivings amounting all around her like a pack of snarling fangs.

 “Perfect teeth,” she said to herself.  “Like pearls.  And always grinning; always so handsome.  Handsome beneath his handsome mustache and handsome blue eyes.”

 The hilly fields gradually sloped downward, away from the moon.  Yet, the moon illuminated the receding earth brightly, as if its glow bled and pooled here in this vast valley that deepened and drained at last toward the peat-heaped lowland known as Devil’s Fen.

 “Perfect teeth,” Phoebe said, “and our children will have perfect teeth, too.  And beautifully black hair.  Handsome chin.  And the bluest eyes.”

 It was good that Phoebe wore her muck boots.  Devil’s Fen was choked with water and mud, the only visible earth carpeted in moss that was so saturated that it held nothing as the cold moonlight glittered off of the scab-pocked mirror of water.  Rushes and sedges grew everywhere in wilted clusters, and here and there lonely willow trees hung their heads in sorrow.  From all of these did Phoebe set about gathering up the materials she would need.  She had brought twine, and she uprooted rushes and reeds, cut them with a bone-knife the hag had given her, and sawed off withy from the mournful branches of the willows, stacking them all together and binding them in twine.  The moon seemed to watch Phoebe as she worked among the shallow pools of festering plants.  Whether it looked on in pleasure or abhorrence, Phoebe could not say.  She was not given to such fanciful thoughts.  She cared only for the task at hand and how it would win her the man she most desired.

 And it was a man that the thirteen-year old most desired.  William Clements was twenty and two and the most handsome of all the men in the county.  He was brawny and broad-shouldered, had a full crown of dark black hair and bright blue eyes.  Moreover, while all of these things recommended him in the admiration of the women, it was his teeth that truly shined as an endorsement of his qualities.  A man with such fine teeth was a man to covet, and all the women coveted him, including Phoebe, despite her young age.  Unfortunately for the women in Wischmeier county, William Clements’s blue eyes only ever followed the weaver’s daughter, Marianne Mayswell.  Phoebe loathed Marianne.  Marianne was fair and milky-figured, made graceful by both a healthy living and the primacy of her seventeen years of age.  Though she would have never admitted it—even to herself—Phoebe could not compete with Marianne, either by figure or by feature, and despite being the daughter of the mayor, Phoebe could not induce William Clements’s fondness with either her promise of wealth or of beauty.  She had tried, of course.  Phoebe had her father buy several dresses and bits of jewelry with which to bedew herself as a rosebud in a golden dawn.  And yet, at her rising, William only turned his head ever toward that humming afternoon sunshine that was Marianne Mayswell.

 And so Phoebe had gone to the hag, and the hag had sent Phoebe here, to Devil’s Fen.

 “Teeth so white and spotless,” she said to herself.  “Cleaner than moonlight.  Brighter than the sun.”

 Her boots splashed up a puddle of mud, sullying her new dress.  She did not care.  It was just another dress that had failed to garner the admiration and affection she envied in Marianne.  The latter could have worn a potato sack and outshone Phoebe’s most regal raiment. 

 Whereas Marianne sewed all of her own clothes, Phoebe received her clothes from the big cities in the Northeast, her father bringing them back with him as gifts whenever his enterprise occasioned his presence in Baltimore or New York.  Her father owned a lumber mill, and was the richest man in all of Wischmeier County.  He employed most of the men who did not own their own lands with which to prosper.  This was also why he was the mayor, for no one dared to challenge him and his resources, nor to cross him, or question him in things concerning the town.  He held power nigh absolute.  The only exceptions for the mayor’s power were the matters governing the romantic hearts in Wischmeier County and, of course, the Fall Festival.

 The Fall Festival was held every year, during the Harvest Moon or thereabouts.  Nearly participated in the Festival.  It was the catharsis of a year of hard labor, and a consolation for the bitter Winter to come.  There was apple cider, and moonshine, and dancing, and storytelling.  There were many contests, too, and each contest rewarded its winner with an assortment of prizes.  Naturally, Phoebe had never stooped to compete in any of the contests, deeming them beneath her.  Yet, the hag had foretold that Phoebe would only win her husband by fabricating her own scarecrow in the Festival’s contest.

 The hag said:

 “With the rush and the reed,

 with both withy and need,

 in the dark Devil’s Fen

 will you thereby know then

 your fateful groom’s grin—

 most unique among men.”

 Phoebe might have dismissed this prophecy as the ravings of an old crone with more cats than sense, but the more she thought about it, the more plausible it seemed.  Marianne always won the scarecrow contest, year after year, for she was the best weaver and seamstress in town.  Phoebe often overheard, with resentment, the men and women who spoke so fondly of Marianne’s talents.  But none spoke more fondly of her scarecrows than did William Clements.

 And it was this latter fact that had convinced Phoebe to take up the hag’s words in earnest.  Even if Phoebe did not win William’s heart, she would at least attempt to win the scarecrow contest.  She must conquer Marianne by some measure, at the least.

 Phoebe stomped about the glittering waters of Devil’s Fen, gathering the materials she would need.  It was a chilly night, yet the work brought a heated flush to her young face.  It was as much heat of temper as of labor, for she had never worked so hard in her life, and it miffed her greatly.

 Phoebe had gathered enough for the scarecrow’s body, but she was unsure what to do for the head.  The hag had told her that Phoebe would know what to use to cap the fellow off when she saw it, but so far Phoebe had seen nothing that snared her attentions.  Leaving her pile of materials on a mossy embankment, Phoebe dared to trudge deeper into the Fen.  She walked for some time, aimless in the moonlit waters except where some preternatural instinct prevailed, and came to the heart of the fen.  The moon’s reflection shivered and dissolved upon the wavelets of the fen as she halted.  There, in front of her, crouching upon a peculiar stone in the center of the fen, was a fat bullfrog.  It was the fattest bullfrog Phoebe had ever seen, its broad green and yellow mouth like a wry smile.  Phoebe felt a keen jolt in her bones.  This was the missing material she needed for her scarecrow.  There was no doubt, even if there was apprehension.  She expected the frog to leap away as she reached for it, but it only squatted there, surrendering to her outstretched hands.  Normally, she hated frogs, and toads, and all such things squishy and slimy and given to the muck and mud.  But Phoebe was so assured now that she would have her heart’s desire that she did not mind the bloated heft of the bullfrog’s flesh as it bulged between her cradling hands.  She carried it back to her stack of rushes and reeds and withy with a confident, determined air.

 Her materials gathered, Phoebe set to work by moonlight.  How long she worked, she did not know.  Hours upon hours seemed to pass, and yet the moon never descended a single hair’s breadth.  Had she not been so fixated on her creation, she might have noticed such unnatural spans of unmarked time, but her heart and soul were consumed by the task, and the seductive dream wrought therefrom.

 As for the frog—to be plopped atop as the scarecrow’s head—the hag had given Phoebe a pot of foul-smelling muck.  Phoebe knew not what the muck was, but it was blackish-brown, like molasses, and smelled like sulphur.  Taking the strangely docile frog, Phoebe dropped the bachtrachian unceremoniously into the pot.  She waited for a time—again, she knew not how long, for she busied herself with other things—and then she dumped the pot out and cleaned the frog with water from the fen.  The frog had lost all of its color, becoming a uniform light brown unlike the complexion of William Clements.  Moreover, its slimy skin was now leathery, wrinkled, dried and stretched unnaturally until the frog’s mouth was just like a lipless smile.  The head now finished, Phoebe impaled it on the scarecrow’s reedy spine and overtopped it with the withy hat.  Phoebe then began the process of thickening the scarecrow’s body.  Using mud, peat, and moss, she fattened the scarecrow to the dimensions of a man.  Using a cattail, she gave him his manhood.

 Phoebe had wanted to have one of her father’s servants to weave the scarecrow together for her, but the hag had said that no other could lay hand to the labor without spoiling the spell. By Phoebe’s work alone would the scarecrow exist, or else her groom would not be procured.  Thus, Phoebe set about with a plaintive, but ultimately passionate, effort to form the figure of reeds and rushes, to stuff him full of sedges and moss and peat and mud.  Over all of this she gave him a shirt she had woven from potato sacks, and britches made of wool, and instead of a straw hat, she had woven a hat made of withy from the willow.

 The scarecrow was finished.  It was as big and heavy as a man—a man very familiar to Phoebe, in a yearning manner—and so she left it there, in Devil’s Fen, hidden beneath a willow tree as she eagerly awaited the Fall Festival.

 Phoebe began the long hike home.  It seemed so much farther to walk now, going uphill out of the Fen and the valley and following, once again, the undulations of the hillocky fields.  She glanced back, once, at the willow tree where she had placed her scarecrow.  Moonlight glowed on the mournful tresses of the willow with a wan wistfulness.  As she turned away a phlegmy cackle echoed from somewhere in the darkness of Devil’s Fen.  A mallard, Phoebe thought.  Nothing more.

 Head heavy with exhaustion, and too much sleepless dreaming, Phoebe trudged home like a sleepwalker in want of a bed.

 On the day of the Fall Festival, Phoebe requested her father’s housemaid, Millie, to fetch her husband and son and have them all aid Phoebe in transporting the scarecrow from the outskirts of the Fen to the town square where the festival was to be held.  The family aided Phoebe with a wheelbarrow and wary glances.  As soon as they saw the scarecrow they crossed themselves.

 “You superstitious fools,” Phoebe muttered.  She added, more loudly, “Hurry!  I don’t want to be late for the contest!”

 The father and son pushed the wheelbarrow from the Devil’s Fen up through the valley and along the undulating fields, coming to the town square.  The Fall Festival was always held on the town square, in among the dogwood trees and the maples.  Festoons hung from branch to branch, and large tents stood steepled on tall posts, one after another, each sheltering a contest or auction or certain games for the children.  Normally, Phoebe felt nothing but disdain for the cake contests and the games of horseshoes and the poor families juggling pennies to outbid one another for novelties that would be mocked as rubbish in any affluent quarter of a New England town.  But she felt excitement to see the commotion made in the bustling crowd as the wheelbarrow was pushed through to the center of the square, its limp passenger nodding with the motion like a drunkard in his cups, or a corpse drawn up out of the bog.

 “Is that real, momma?” a little boy wondered aloud, his eyes wide to the whites.

 “I don’t know,” the boy’s mother said, drawing him back behind herself with a protective arm.  “I reckon not, but I don’t know for certain.”

 Such remarks only pleased Phoebe the more.  That her creation should give such misapprehension to the country bumpkins proved to her that she had made a formidable scarecrow.  A more grotesque specimen was never known.

 Fortune smiled upon Phoebe more that day, for the scarecrow contest was to be held in the central pavilion of the town square.  This was a large wooden roof, like that belonging to a barn, only hoisted high upon tall, thick posts.  The scarecrows from the other competitors had already been erected on stakes for all to see.  Marianne Mayswell had her scarecrow front and center, its cloth body assuming a fine semblance to a man in caricature, from his protruding nose to his button eyes and his fine-fingered hands.  The weaver’s daughter had outdone herself this year.  The scarecrow’s pants were good enough for a child of equal size to wear to church, and the flannel shirt was checkered with perfect little red and black squares.  Marianne’s scarecrow was superior to the other scarecrows in every way.  Seeing it made Phoebe’s heart sink.  It was perfect.  But then she turned and looked at her own scarecrow with its all-too-human proportions and its unique fen-furnished materials.  Marianne’s was perfected tradition, Phoebe thought, but Phoebe’s was unique.  Strangely unique.  Bizarre.  Otherworldly.  At the very least her simulacrum deserved due consideration by the judges, if not outright praise.

 “Be careful!” Phoebe admonished her helpers as the father and son struggled under the weight of her scarecrow.  “If you break it my father will have you whipped out of town!”

 The father and son steadied the scarecrow—even if they trembled now more than ever—and then, having secured it on a large stake, retreated from their mistress, disappearing into the crowd.  The crowd swelled forward more closely around Phoebe’s scarecrow to stare in wonder, and abhorrence, at the grotesquery wrought before them.

 Yet, while many faces contorted with fear and disgust at the strange, foul-smelling scarecrow, the only face that mattered at all in the crowd was that of William Clements as he stepped forward to gain a better view of the curio in their midst.

 “It sure would scare crows away,” William remarked, smiling nervously.  “It would scare me away if I saw it standing in a field on a dark night.”

 “Not so,” Phoebe said, nearly giggling with giddy joy as she gladly stepped up to meet him and his pearly white teeth.  “I know you too well, William.  You are too brave and strong to be scared away by anything.”

 William’s shoulders, and eyebrows, shrugged.  “I have my limits,” he said.  “If I’d caught sight of this thing in the field at night I’d kick up enough dirt running away to bury half the county.”

 “Then perhaps you wish me to accompany you home,” Phoebe said, radiant with moon-eyed delight, “to protect you from my scarecrow?”

 William did not answer her, for Marianne approached, then, and he had eyes now only for the weaver’s daughter.

 “She has talent,” Marianne said.  “And I like the curious use of reeds and moss.  It lends it a different character than the normal sort of field-uncle that the rest of us made.  And the use of leather for the head is a clever touch.”

 It was generously said, and yet any generosity afforded to Phoebe by the beauteous Marianne smacked of condescension, regardless of how good the intention.

 “I don’t have the lay skills of a tradesman,” Phoebe said, sourly, “or a tradeswoman, and so I make do with what my elevated upbringing has given me.”

 The acerbity was unmistakable in Phoebe’s voice, yet she was young, and so negligible, especially as William and Marianne turned their attentions toward each other at the exclusion of anyone else.  Phoebe saw how their eyes met, and could feel their tidal force.  She felt suddenly reduced in size, small, shrinking beneath the taller, prettier girl and the mutual attraction William shared with her.  Were Marianne and William to kiss, Phoebe realized, William would not need to stoop to kiss her, the young woman being as tall, whereas if he were to kiss Phoebe he would need to stoop as if picking up a child.  And Phoebe was no child, she insisted to herself.  She was as much a woman as Marianne, if not more so.  Being the daughter of the mayor, she had real power in Springfield.  She wore the mature dresses of France and Italy.  Phoebe considered herself worldly in her wardrobe and her wiles.

 And yet, her mind was arrayed with the thoughts of their first kiss.  It would not be romantic.  It would not be passionate.  It would be absurd.  William was a man, and she was a little, foolish girl.  She felt tears burning at the edges of her eyes, unnoticed by the crowd gathered around her scarecrow.  Before the tears could bubble free, she hurried away from the pavilion to the solitary shade of a maple tree.  No one was near her now.  She sat on the ground, unmindful of her pretty green dress from France, and cried bitterly.  It was some time before she realized that the shade had deepened and darkened from noonday blue to midnight black.  Raising her head, she saw that the hag was standing over her, smiling a toothless smile within her faded gray hood.

 “Do not cry, my little lamb,” the hag said.  “Whatever could be the matter?”

 At the sound of pity, Phoebe’s temper flared.  She leapt up, clenching her fists at her side.  “You liar!  You said he would love me if I made that stupid scarecrow!”

 “It is but a step along the way,” the hag said, her feigned pity replaced by a sly smile.  “Be careful how you foot it, for there are more dangerous paths than fens to wind one’s way through.”

 “You say a lot without saying anything at all,” Phoebe retorted.  “I trudged through mud and spent all night making that useless scarecrow, and to what end?  To what end, you old, ugly hag?!”

 “The end has not yet come,” the hag said simply.  “You will have exactly what you wish.  A husband with handsome blue eyes and immaculate teeth.  You must have faith, child, for it will come to pass.  You will have a husband with all the things your heart values.  You will have his handsome blue eyes and his immaculate teeth.”

 “But Marianne has his heart!” Phoebe moaned, feigning a swoon against the tree.  She suddenly sprang upright, her green eyes flapping open suddenly and brightening with the fulgurous thunderclap of a thought.  “Unless you mean some misfortune will come to pass for Marianne?!”  She clapped her hands together excitedly.  “Ohhh, is that it?”  Still smiling, she feigned sadness.  “Oh, but I must not wish too mortal a fate for her.  It would be beneath me.  She is, after all, only a weaver’s daughter.  Better would it be that William were to reflect on his first choice and realize the folly of it, choosing instead to pursue truer taste in one as highly bred as I am.”

 “You will have the man with the beautiful blue eyes and the immaculate teeth,” the hag said.  “As you said you desired.”

 “But when?” Phoebe moaned.

 The hag gestured toward the town square with a wart-clustered finger.  Phoebe’s eyes followed the gesture, falling again on the pavilion.  There was a commotion within the crowd.  Many were glancing toward her—at Phoebe—and Phoebe was taken aback.

 “What are they gawking at?” Phoebe demanded, outraged.

 The hag was gone.  She had vanished into thin air.  Someone broke away from the pavilion crowd and approached Phoebe.  Much to her delight, and agitation, it was William.  He strode toward her with his long, loping stride.  Coming from among those commonfolk, he was as a proud stallion stepping forth from amongst a herd of dim-witted mules.  Phoebe’s stomach whirled with butterflies and she felt as if she was reeling on a merry-go-round.  She felt she would have to steady herself by grasping his mustache.

 “Phoebe,” he said, “the judges have decided that your scarecrow is the best.”

 “Really?” Phoebe said.  The excitement in her voice had nought to do with her scarecrow; rather, it was elicited by the impeccable grin on William’s face.  “So I won?  Me?  What a surprise!  I am so happy!”

 “You should come get your prize,” William said.

 “What is it?” Phoebe asked, excited at the thought that it might be a kiss from the young man standing before her.

 “A quilt,” William said.  “Woven by Marianne’s father, Michael.”

 Phoebe’s smile instantly soured.  “I do not want a quilt,” she said.

 “But it really is a pretty quilt,” William said.  “One of the best her father has ever woven.”

 “Then let her keep it,” Phoebe said, irritably.  “What good can I have from a quilt?  I get all of my blankets and sheets from France.  They’re softer and better made in France.  Because of their more finely bred fingers.”

 William’s countenance darkened with what Phoebe knew to be anger.  But instead of offering a cross rebuke, he merely turned away from her in silence, walking toward the pavilion.  Phoebe watched him go with a feeling of terrible finality all about her and the cosmos.  This finality consumed the spheres and made her feel claustrophobic, like a mouse chased deeper and deeper into a narrowing hole by a mouser.  Her greatest fear seemed soon to reach fruition.

 “William!” she called out, her voice cracking.

 He said nothing, nor did he turn to look at her.  He merely halted.

 “On second thought, I wish to see this quilt,” she said, hurrying forward.  “It is, no doubt, as good as any French blanket, if not Oriental silk.  The Maywells are very talented people.”

 William turned about now, a wary smile returning to his face.  “They are, as a matter of fact,” he said.  “Not a weaver for four hundred miles that could do better.”

 Phoebe’s luck seemed to take a change for the better a little later when Marianne had to escort her elderly father home.  He had a wet cough and she, being his only child, wished to see him rectified with a bowl of hot soup and a warm fire.  Reluctantly, William said his goodbyes to Marianne, and prepared to leave, himself, from the emptying town square as the gloaming drew its crepuscular fabrics all around.  Phoebe, however, had a mind for fatefulness.  So, she took the rare opportunity and asked that he take a walk about the town with her.  Seeing no harm in it, William agreed, and not only agreed, but carried the quilt that Phoebe had won with her unique scarecrow.

 Phoebe and William took several turns about the square.  Phoebe spoke much about her father’s businesses, his prosperity, the various things he bought for her, and all of the material comforts which she thought a goodly lure for the man she wished to betroth.  After a time, William interrupted her diatribe about the superiority of China to American pewter plates to remark upon her scarecrow.

 “It seems your father had some people carry your scarecrow away,” he said, pointing.

 Phoebe blinked in confusion, then followed his finger.  Beneath the pavilion, the large stake was vacant of its former resident.  This baffled Phoebe, for she had made no request for anyone to take possession of her creation, nor to carry it elsewhere.  Her father, in fact, did not even know the scarecrow existed, for he had foregone the Fall Festival in favor of a festival of his own, awash with ale.  Whichever way the scarecrow had come to vanish, Phoebe did not care.  It had served its purpose, and now she was walking and talking with William Clements— alone, in twilight, with no one else eavesdropping upon them; and, truth be told, if someone did so happen to be eavesdropping, all the merrier for Phoebe.  Let it spread around Springfield and to the bordering counties.  Perhaps the rumor would gain momentum enough to carry this night into a foreseeable day of matrimonial bliss, or at least obligation.

 “William,” she said, suddenly halting and facing him.  “What are your plans for the future?  What are your dreams?”

 William’s brow furrowed with thought.  “Well, I suppose I would like to own my own farm.  Maybe someday I would even own two farms.  Three even!”  He laughed, and the laugh was full-chested with booming alacrity.

 “You should really think about being mayor,” Phoebe said in earnest.  “Someone with your recommendations could easily be a mayor.  In fact, with the right wife you could become governor.  A president, I should think.”

 William squinted painfully, as if he had been struck on the head with a chance acorn.  “I don’t think I would take to that sort of life,” he said.  “I know cows.  I know sheep.  But running a town?  I would be happy enough running my own barn without it burning down.”

 Phoebe shook her head irritably.  “No, no, no.  It is simple, really, running a town.  It is like a barn.  You merely need to shepherd the people, as you do with cows and sheep.  It is no different, truly.  I can help you do it when we are married…”

 William’s dark eyebrows lifted in surprise, furrowing his brow like plows.  He sighed.  “Phoebe, that is not possible,” he said.  “I’ve tried to be soft about this, but you are making it hard for me.  Marianne and I are getting married.  You are too young to…”

 Phoebe did not wait for him to finish.  The tears gushed, followed by the venom.  “Marianne is a stupid cow!” she screamed.  “I’m the one with money!  Why don’t you want to marry me?!”

 William stepped back, one hand raised while the other cradled Phoebe’s unwanted-yet-won quilt, and his eyes darting about in wild terror.  Dogs barked in the distance.

 “Phoebe, please,” he pleaded.  “It is not about money.  This is about love.  And I love Marianne.  She is of marrying age.  You…you are too young.”

 “Then wait for me,” she said, her lips quivering with chaotic, conflicted emotions.  “I’ll be of age in a few years and then you can marry me!”

 “Marianne and I have been engaged in secret for two years, Phoebe,” he said.  “I cannot break my vow to her.”  He held out the quilt for Phoebe to take.  “It would hurt her, and it would hurt myself.  You have to understand.  She and I were meant to be…”

 Phoebe jerked the quilt away from him and threw it to the ground.  Her scream was an infernal peal of primal rage.  She pressed her hands to her ears and then ran away in a wild direction, heedless of where she was going.  She ran and ran until the town square, and the town itself, was lost to the evening mists and shadows.

 “She lied to me!” Phoebe wept.  “The old witch lied to me!  Will won’t marry me!  He hates me!”

 Sobbing and running, she went downhill until she finally fell to her knees, breathless beneath a wanly-glowing willow tree.  The moon slowly rose, as if gloating over Phoebe’s sorrows.  Her whole body rattled and shook with her weeping.  She did not care about anything thereafter—whether wolf stealing through the woods or viper creeping through the weeds—and did not observe the world’s clock as it ticked on and on.

 And yet, after a time, she stared down at her new dress.  It was a French dress quite fashionable in Parisian salons, and now it was stained with the derisive touch of grass.  She did not care.  Her whole life had been marred, she thought, because William would not be bound to her.  She wished her father would pillory Marianne and have her flogged.  Phoebe was so wrathful that, had she seen Marianne’s face then, she would have clawed out Marianne’s pretty blue eyes.  Blue eyes!  Like William’s!  As if matched by Providence!  All of their children were fated to have such blue eyes, and they would taunt and haunt Phoebe to the end of her days!

 “Weeping again, child?” the hag said.  “And on your wedding night?”

 “Do not…mock…me…” Phoebe said between sobs.  “Leave me be.  I just…want to…to…die.”

 The hag cackled—a phlegmy, thick cackle like wet, rotten wood split by an ax.  “You will not die, child.  Not for many a year.  You have too long a married life to live.  Too many children to bear.  Your groom comes.  He will be here soon.”

 “Go…away!” Phoebe rallied, her rage crashing, like lightning, through her shower of tears.  Her hand found a stone, and she raised it with a fury.

 The hag was gone.  All around Phoebe was now silence and the moon-drawn shadows within Devil’s Fen.  Lips still trembling, Phoebe rose to her feet.  She breathed reluctantly, as if to breathe meant to endorse the life she now lived with all of its inherent hopelessness.  Wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, she turned toward the slope leading out of the Fen.  Up from the valley her eyes wandered, as if looking for a sign.  She found one.  There, atop of the hillocky expanse, was a figure etched black within the moonlight.

 “Wi…Will?” she whispered.

 The figure approached her, walking with the same strong, long loping stride that stamped William Clements’s approach.

 “Will?” Phoebe said louder, with more hope and joy.  “Will, you do love me, don’t you?”

 She wished to run to him, but dared not move, for she feared it was a dream from which she would abruptly wake.

 The moon slid down lower as the figure descended into the valley toward Devil’s Fen, its full orange glow unobserved.  Phoebe waited by the willow tree, the world overcome with a silence pregnant with anticipation.  No whippoorwills chanted.  No crickets chirped.  No wolves howled.  The silence pervaded, and Phoebe could hear her own heart pounding hard in her chest like thunder.

 “Will, I promise I will be your perfect wife,” Phoebe said, or whispered, or mouthed.  “I won’t ever disappoint you.  I will love you, and honor you, and cherish you.  I will bear you many sons with your same blue eyes and perfect white teeth.”

 The figure came to the bottom of the valley’s slope, nearing the willow tree.

 “If you want to be a farmer, you can be a farmer,” Phoebe said.  “I will be a farmer’s wife.  I don’t have to be a governor’s wife, or even a mayor’s wife.  So long as I am your wife.  Will, I…”

 Phoebe’s mouth went slack, loosening into a gawping hole of horror.

 The scarecrow loomed over her, its frog-face broad and leathery and stinking beneath its withy hat.  Something dark and wet and fresh glistened all over its lips, dribbling down its cheeks and chin.

 “No…not you…” Phoebe whimpered, shrinking in terror.  “Please…go away…”

 The scarecrow did not go away.  It leaned forward, its familiar blue eyes inching closer.  Its leathery lips curved upward, then parted wetly.  Gleaming in the milky moonlight, each one as finely white as any polished pearl, were many an immaculate tooth—teeth more immaculate than any others in all of Wischmeier County.

Kwaidan Season: Inevitability

Nobuteru was grateful that he had just hauled his last bundle of bamboo into his bamboo hut near the forest.  As he let it drop next to the firepit the heavens let their rains fall with a thunderous clap and a boom, the thatch roof suddenly resounding with a hushing downpour.  His wife, Aoi, squatted by the firepit, cooking fish and rice, her belly swollen beneath her peasants garbs.  Nobuteru ’s son, Eiji, came hurrying in a little later, his bamboo fishing pole abandoned to the rain and his garbs soaked through and through.

  “Come to the fire, Eiji, ” his mother said.   “The rain has a chill. ”

 Eiji squatted next to the simple firepit where the bamboo burned and the fish and pot of rice cooked.  Nobuteru watched his son, and looked fondly on his wife, and was grateful for the bamboo and all that it provided.  Without it, they would not have shelter against the rain, nor warmth against the chill, and so all seemed well in his simple life.  They ate their fish and rice, and Nobuteru offered prayers to the gods of the forest, and listened to the rain with a deep sense of gratitude as he fell asleep.

 It was later that night when Nobuteru was woken by Eiji ’s sobs.  He roused, unlinking himself from Aoi, and peering drowsily into the moonlit hut.  He saw Eiji standing near the corner.  The rain had not stopped, and it was black as any night might be.  Yet, Nobuteru saw what he wished he did not see.  There was a long arm extending out of a cracked bamboo shaft.  This arm was pale as a fish ’s belly, and lustrous, glowing pallidly in the darkness.  It ’s fingers were thin, more jointed than any man ’s finger, and black claws arched out of each tip.  Gently, covetously, the hand petted Eiji ’s black hair while the boy stood transfixed, trembling in the caress of the elongated fingers.

 Nobuteru leapt up and pulled his son away from the hand.  The hand curled its fingers in a gesture of deference, raising its waxen palms up as if beseeching a gift.

 And a voice spoke.

  “Nobuteru, I have blessed you, ” said the voice like wheezy wind through bamboo.   “Now you must repay my kindness with an offering of your own. ”

  “What are you? ” Nobuteru whispered, fearful he might wake his wife to this horror.  He held his son behind him, protectively.

  “I am a generous spirit that has benefitted you, ” the voice said from deep inside every bamboo shoot.   “I only ask what is yours to give in turn. ”

  “You cannot have my son, ” Nobuteru said.

  “Oh, but how many sons and daughters have you taken from me? ” the voice said.  The arm caressed the bamboo walls of the hut, and felt among the ashes of the smouldering fire.   “So many sacrificed for your comfort and health. ”

 Nobuteru did not know what the spirit was, and so knew not how he might appease it.   “Ask for something else, ” he said.   “I will do what you wish.  But you may not take my son. ”

  “I will have your daughter, then, ” said the voice, rolling its hideous fingers in waves.

 Nobuteru looked at his wife.  He stared at the swell of her belly beneath her clothes.

  “Very well, ” he said.   “If you can take her now, do so, but do not harm my wife. ”

  “No, no, no, ” rattled the voice softly.   “I must not harvest her until she is of age, as you do when you cut down my children in the forest. ”  The arm withdrew into the narrow bamboo.   “Five flood seasons from now.  No sooner…no later…five flood seasons and I will harvest your daughter by the bladed moon… ”

 The voice died away like a withdrawing wind.  Nobuteru felt his son shaking beside him, and knew himself to be shaking to his very bones as well.  Yet, he knew he must not let Aoi know.  He turned to his son, knelt down, and took him by his shoulders.

  “This is all a bad dream, ” he said.   “Do not tell your mother.  She must not know.  Promise. ”

 The tremulous boy nodded obediently.

 Nobuteru wasted no time in cutting down the bamboo forest.  Every day he cut down as many shoots as he could, swinging until his calloused fingers bled and his arms ached from wrist to shoulder.  He did not bother to set the decimated bamboo aside and let the sap flow free from them.  He cut and burned, cut and burned, desolating the forest all around his hut.  His wife thought he had lost all sense, but little Eiji helped his father in earnest, for the cold sweat of fear from that harrowing night remained upon him.  The pale arm haunted the two of them in their dreams and in waking daylight.

 Meanwhile Aoi grew large with child.  Upon the day of her pangs, a daughter was born.  Rather than pleasing Nobuteru, he paled at the sight of the beautiful child and hurried out to clear away more of the forest.  He thought that if he destroyed the forest then the forest spirit —or whatever it happened to be —would lose its place in the human realm and become lost elsewhere; untethered from the mortal spheres.  He cut like never before, and was as a wildfire in his destruction.

 It was not long before Nobuteru ’s obsession became infamous.  Other woodcutters and farmers in the area complained, claiming he had gone mad.  A priest was sent from a local shrine and he spoke to Nobuteru, admonishing him.

  “Such profligacy displeases the gods, ” the priest warned as he looked on while Nobuteru busied his axe among the remaining forest.   “This forest is sacred to spirits, good and evil alike! ”

  “Well do I know of such things, ” Nobuteru said.   “It is why I work so single-mindedly. ”

 He revealed the truth about the visitation of the spirit, of the demand for Nobuteru ’s daughter.  Hearing his story, the priest grew pensive.  It took many moments after Nobuteru had finished his account before the priest spoke again.

  “We must purify your daughter, ” the priest said.   “Perhaps the evil spirit will depart. ”

 The night of the ceremony, Aoi was told of what was to happen and why.  She was fearful, for their daughter was now a healthy toddler, quick on her feet and sharp of mind.  Her name was Aiko and she was the delight of her parents ’ hearts.  They cherished her, as they did her brother.  To lose Aiko when so young, and to such a horrid fate, frightened Aoi.  But she trusted in the priest, even if she had grown to distrust her husband, and so when the priest told her that she could not witness the exorcism she took Eiji to fish while the ritual took place.

 The ritual lasted all day and night.  What was seen, and what was better left unseen, neither the priest nor Nobuteru ever spoke thereof.  It was said that the priest had become like a man in famine, so hollow were his eyes and cheeks.  The priest died before the Summer ’s end. Nobuteru did not suffer so final a fate so abruptly, but his hair turned white as hoarfrost and there was a dimness in the light of his eyes at times such as when thin clouds pass over the moon.  Nonetheless, he reassured his wife and son that his daughter was saved.  Aiko seemed unchanged, the vibrant look in her green eyes still lively and undaunted.  She had witnessed horrors and emerged as clean from the ordeal as the sun after the morning fog has fallen away.

 Years passed.  Aiko grew taller, talkative, and inquisitive.  She was deft with her hands, weaving strong fibers together ingeniously.  Her laughter was such that birds halted their songs to listen in admiration and wonderment.  Nobuteru and Aoi were pleased by her, and never disappointed.  To see her run and laugh after her brother was to see joy such as bodhisattvas should envy their childish play.

 Whereas Aiko blossomed, the bamboo forest did not grow at all.  No more shoots sprang up from the smouldering soil, and the soil eroded with the wet season.  When the river swelled it carried silt over the land, and yet the land grew nothing.  The spirit was gone, it seemed, and with it the forest.

 Nobuteru moved his family upstream, away from the remnants of the forest.  He became a fisherman to sustain his family.  Eiji helped greatly, having grown taller and stronger, now more like his father than ever.  He worked hard for the family, especially for his little sister, and tended her every whim with patience.  Yet, sometimes Eiji was disquieted, and was overtaken with gloomy moods, thinking back to the night that the pale hand extended out of the bamboo and caressed him.  But he did not speak of such things to anyone.  He kept his fears to himself to keep such fears from his loved ones.

 Four years passed and it seemed the fears had passed with them.  But while the family lived well, there came creeping a pernicious effect on Aiko.  Slowly, the sweetness leeched out of the little girl.  She became rigid around her parents, and uncaring.  Her green eyes hardened and looked not with daughterly fondness, but an otherworldly detachment.  She did not sing, after a time, and did not run and play.  She walked stiffly, as if her joints did not work well.  Sometimes she simply stood in the wind, upright, stiff-bodied, but bending with the wind as it blew about her.  When her parents spoke to her, she rarely spoke in turn, and when she did speak she spoke with a whispering voice like rustling leaves.  This troubled Eiji.

  “There is something wrong with Aiko, ” Eiji said one day while out on the boat with his father.   “She is no longer as she was. ”

  “So long as we stay away from the forest, she will be well, ” his father said.   “That is what the spirit promised. ”

  “You cannot trust an evil spirit, ” Eiji said.

  “Nor do I! ” Nobuteru shouted.   “That is why I moved our family here.  The curse is lifted if we remain far from the forest.  The priest saw to it. ”

  “But father… ”

  “Enough! ” his father snapped.   “That is all!  Do not speak of it anymore! ”

 Eiji did not speak of it, though he thought of it despairingly.

 That night the rain fell hard.  The thatch roof buckled beneath the weight of it, but the roof did not collapse.  Nobuteru stoked the firepit as his family huddled around for warmth against the misty chill.  No one spoke, the rain drowning all sound.  Eiji watched Aiko with a feeling of foreboding.  He did not know why, but he felt something terrible was going to happen.  The premonition stroked at his hair like a long-fingered hand he knew years before.

 Gradually, they all fell asleep.  They could not hear the river beneath the heavy rain.  When the water rushed in through the hut, they started and cried out, scrambling to stand as they were swept sideways.  Eiji helped his mother, holding her against the flooding torrent, and Nobuteru clutched at Aiko.  They trudged through the water as it began to drag the hut in the bullish flow.  All seemed hopeful as they left the hut behind.  But then Nobuteru tripped, and lost hold of Aiko.  Aiko did not struggle, but floated away into the wet darkness like a plank of wood without a will of her own.  Her father scrambled to catch hold of her again, crying out to her.  He failed.  Weeping, the family struggled to higher ground, and found it among the foothills.  They did not see Aiko again that night.

 The next morning the family followed the swollen river downstream, eyes red with tears as they stared into the currents, half in hope and half in horror.  They called for Aiko.  They prayed to the gods.  Nothing answered them.  When they found her body, she lay in a field clustered with the remnants of bamboo.  Her face was pale and clammy, and so they knew that she was dead.  They dug a grave for her in that alluvial plain, erecting a stone shrine where she lay.  When the river receded there grew up a dense bamboo forest around the shrine.  It was shunned by animals and people alike.  Whispery voices could be heard among the leaves, and the melodic giggles of a girl.  It was said that if a woodcutter entered the forest he felt long fingers caressing his head.  No one dared to cut the bamboo in that forest again.

Autumn Vayne

By the windowpane

in the library

so sat Autumn Vayne

with lips nigh cherry,

watching the cold rain,

sad little fairy.

Auburn was her hair

and brown her wet eyes

as she gazed out there

at the mournful skies.

“I wish the sky fair—

not this one which cries.”

Afire were the trees

with their flaring hues—

she sighed like a breeze

or a woman whose

man died overseas.

“Life’s the thing we lose.

Death’s the thing that frees.”

The leaves fell like flames

in the rainy eve

and with them the names

she had yet to grieve—

all the petty games

of such make-believe,

such make-believe love,

the green giving way

to the seasons of

young hearts gone astray

like those leaves above,

all wilting away.

Mournful Autumn Vayne

sat and watched the Fall

of leaves and of rain

and hearts, overall—

a vigil of pain

for the forlorn sprawl.

And she sat there long

till her hair changed, too,

fading fast, ere long,

to a copper hue

like the leaves which throng

an Autumnal view.

Orange And Black

An October road, orange on black,
like obsidian beneath falling rain,
so slick and gleaming, forward and back
while wet shadows along the winding lane
wash up like alluvial shores,
the lamplights gentle on the front windows
of bricked-up glass, small-town stores
half-dreaming, half waking in rows.
Boughs detailed with orange flecks of light
or else darkly blank as fat thunderclouds
while they line the sidewalks to the right
like chandeliers partly covered with shrouds;
Hollow-eyed houses, empty of life,
with columned porches aglow with light—
each half-glimpsed raindrop a silver knife
that flashes as it slashes through the night.
See the church with its river-rock face,
dark and wet as if the river still runs
over the stones all set into place
long before the town known for its bourbons.
In the graveyard trees sway with the wind
while their weather-withered branches disrobe,
orange leaves tumbling, end over end,
glanced in the sullen light of a lamp’s globe.
The maple tree has an orange crown
and black branches like charred sorceress bones,
the leaves soot-sided embers come down
among the sprawling, stygian headstones.
Orange and black—all orange and black,
the colors of Halloween all around;
spire to cupola, eave to smokestack,
and splashing in the puddles on the ground.
From afar, now, the town is aglow
in the dark, silent sea spread all about;
a bright river boat drifting below
rain and shadow mingling along a route.
Orange and black—as if a pumpkin
left out at night and gone halfway to rot—
a Jack O’ Lantern with its plump skin
half-burned, its grin’s inner flame just too hot.
Neither asleep or awake: a dark dusk,
this town in October’s darkening eves,
flame and shadow consume the wet husk,
light losing the battle as Summer leaves.

Autumn Tea

Acorns underfoot, red foliage overhead,
we walk through the woods, to the wilted clover bed
where the Green Man lays, a god no longer green,
and soon to fade beneath that arboreal scene.
From his brow we take a handful of brown leaves
while the birds fall silent among the sylvan eaves.
He rouses, briefly, and offers to us a seed:
it smells of every plant, tree, and even weed.
Returning home, we set the water to boil
and dig a hole in the earth, planting in the soil
the seed that he gave us, a seed of Springtime hope
as we drink our Autumn tea and we try to cope.
The world is one of colors all flaring in hue,
life and death together—a bittersweet brew.

Autumn Vixens

Autumn Vixen I
Look at her lovely sly eyes
glinting darkly among the leaves;
a fox, but only in disguise—
her red hair often bereaves.

Autumn Vixen II
Autumn blew a chill kiss with its wind
through the tree-lined streets of our small town
and teased us softly of Summer’s end
when her leaves would soon fade and fall down.

Eager to wear her yellows and reds
and that drab brown frock she herself loves,
she coos, and her breath goes to our heads
with a fog that rolls over foxgloves.

An artful lover, she also weaves
spells with her middle-aged, mature charms,
yet playful, too, as winds through the leaves
so her love is fresh and, thus, disarms.

And though withering with winds so cold
that you bundle up for her embrace
she is lovely, still, her colors bold—
lovelier than Winter’s haggard face.

Autumn Vixen III
When the season reaches an age
and cares not for judgment from the world,
she may well turn to the next page
and let her dress fall freely, unfurled,
and welcome onto her bare breast
a man daring the scandalous task—
naked, unafraid, wholly blessed
with neither name nor shame nor a mask.

Autumn Showers

(Written with appreciation for
Robert Frost’s “My November Guest”)

How is it that gloomy Autumn murk
is as passing lovely as a Summer’s day
when sunlight fails and shadows lurk
and rainclouds dim each reaching ray?

Fall is always weeping, even when not,
while yesterday’s tears drip from eaves
and color drains from a reverie of rot—
the huddling memories of fallen leaves.

The gray barrenness is a thing akin
to mourners crowding a funeral home,
peopling absence around a silent coffin
from which the spirit has gone to roam.

And grief has a beauty all its own,
being an atmosphere of misty tears,
a season when we’re among many, yet alone,
plunged deep in phantoms from previous years.

It is overcast with a private veil,
the ambience of our greatest grief
a season of solitude, languishing and pale
like the sun seen through a torn diary leaf.

Autumn is the season of loss and pity,
moody and umbral like the brokenhearted,
but its dirge refrains with a line of dignity—
“Remember to remember the departed.”

Fall (Asleep)

The land was speaking again
with the wilting of the black trees,
the yellowing of green fields, the glen
strewn with leaves from a cold breeze.

Beneath the dismal gloom the land lay
languid while clouds drizzled a cold shower,
gloomy droplets throughout the day
mourning the waste of every flower.

And the sun was gone, as if it had crashed
into the cornfields, with their broken stalks,
and burned itself out, shattered, smashed
into cold black soil, strewn with rocks.

Wherever the land spoke, it decried
like an old man afraid of the long, deep sleep
to come beneath the blankets of Winter-tide,
heavy, cold, silent, heap upon heap.

Four Poems

Autumn Splendor
Molten gold apocalypse
through flame-palmed crimson leaves—
blinding blast of a mock-eclipse;
a war-drunk dawn that bereaves.

The Blues
Met the Devil down in the delta
of Louisiana, the sorta’ fella’
who could sing any song a capella,
his voice smooth as sarsaparilla.

He had a diamond-studded cigar case
and he smoked souls with a smile on his face
while watching those who’d try that hobbled chase
of fame and fortune, that tired musk-rat race.

“You don’t have much to lose,”
he said, grinning at his own ruse.
“Except everything, if you so choose
to learn how you get you the Blues.”

But I was a right, ripe fool way back when
and didn’t see the trick he was playing then,
and when he said I’d lose it all to sin
I scoffed, like all those other Blues men.

My daddy got drunk, hit his head and died,
my wife left to live on the greener side,
and I lost my house to the rising marsh tide;
then my Blues found me, like a deathbed bride.

I picked up my guitar, and I slid my fingers all along
those biting strings, those bracing frets, the song
that came to my fingers being of sadness and of wrong;
my voice like a bullfrog’s— deep, woeful, strong.

I sang about wealth and I sang about fame,
I sang about sin and I sang about shame.
I sang about forgiveness and I sang about blame,
I sang about everyone, never saying no name.

But nobody’d listen to me or my tune
‘cuz my grooves grieved like some sad-lulling loon
calling out from the lake, lonely beneath the moon,
and all because I wanted the Blues too soon.

So I went back to that Devil and to him I said,
“I don’t want the Blues no more, Dickie Red.”
And he answered with a shake of his slick ol’ head,
saying, “The Blues will last till you’re done dead.”

And now I got the Blues, for all they’re worth,
and I can’t feel no pleasure, or joy or mirth,
bidin’ my time, like a crab among the surf
while my days go on by, this sorrowing earth.

Crippling Euphemisms
To nail wings onto Tiny Tim’s crutch
to make it look like a rocket
and to think you have done so much
to straighten his leg, socket to socket.
He will not fly to the moon,
nor will he run and play like other boys,
but you’ve created false hope which soon
crashes and burns and utterly destroys.

Conceit
The conceit that senseless word salad
could somehow nowadays be deemed
a poem, the misnomer made valid
by a hashtag alone, not by what it seemed,
is not unlike the village idiot grinning
and thinking himself the new constable
because he had played at a carnival, winning
a plastic badge; it is demonstrable
of the times, of the mediocre standards
that preside like a village idiot over all,
commanding attention with bland words
and the clueless noise of a town-crier’s call
after he has drank a barrel’s worth of beer
and slurred, proudly, Pig Latin to many a deaf ear.