Unfelt Rains

What is human grief
but rain on stone?
Whether long or brief,
it dries where strewn
without scarring rock,
or carving rune—
no such stain or pock
outlast the moon.
The tears always dry
and stones remain,
the years pass us by:
the cosmos reign—
they reign, unfeeling,
forgetting all,
the cold stones wheeling
while hot tears fall.

Tynged

The snake-eyed die is cast,
unfurled like the ship’s sail
from the creaking oak mast,
while the Westward winds wail.
The man in the crow’s nest
cries out, “Crags down below!”
but the waves surge to crest,
churning, blow upon blow.
The crew shouts to their gods,
clinging as the hull slams
into reef, and then nods
toward the fish and clams.
The die is cast—a loss
for Man against the Fates;
the waves renew and toss,
heaving like strong shipmates.
The ship tips over, now,
as a horse reined to fall,
pitching to starboard bow
as at the siren’s call.
The men abandon ship,
leaping from larboard side
like die cast with a slip
of the hand—they still died.

Washed Away

The tall preacher lays his palm upon the man’s forehead. With his other hand the preacher cradles the man’s nape. All around them the Snake River flows easily, aglitter in the dawn. The preacher speaks loudly, clearly, so that the rest of his followers may hear as they watch from the bank of the river.
“May yesterday’s sins be washed away in the blood of Jesus Christ.”
The man takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. The preacher lowers the man backwards into the gilded water, pausing a moment as the man disappears into the sky on the water, and then raises him, holding him steadily as the man breathes out and blinks rapidly into the bright light of a new day. His white long-johns are soaked through. Droplets of water stud him like diamonds.
“Thank you, preacher,” the man says.
“Thank the Lord, Billy,” the preacher says. His black robe is like a raven perched amidst the river. “Forgiveness is His alone.”
Billy nods and then crosses himself, trudging now to the bank of the river to join with the others, drying in the sun. He sits down, his mousy hair wet and lank. He smiles through his wet beard as if a boy again, and the rest of the followers return his smile with childlike joy.
The preacher looks upon them with the look of a shepherd for his sheep. Then, with a gesture, he invites the next member of his flock forward into the waters to be baptized for the new day of pious devotion.

The sun rises higher and the day grows hotter, dustier. The flock harvests the crops they grow near their settlement of tents and wagons and palisades. Some men go fishing for trout in the river to add to the evening’s meal. The preacher stands solemnly nearby, a bible in his hand and his cool gray eyes watchful of his flock. The sun bakes skin and earth unto a clay. The preacher vows that he will mold the clay as God molded Adam.
Billy approaches the preacher, his breeches and hat dusty with the work of the day. The young man’s eyes squint perpetually, the sun having cracked wrinkles prematurely beneath them. The young man’s bare torso is as gaunt as Christ on a Catholic crucifix.
“Preacher,” Billy says, “I wanted to apologize.”
“Oh?” the preacher says. “There is no need. That is why I baptize you every morning. Your sins are washed away.”
Billy lets his eyes drop to the sagebrush and other shrubs scattered across the expanse between himself and the mountain-hemmed horizon. The preacher seems taller than the mountains themselves, and looms over all things.
“It’s not my sins I’m worried about, preacher. It’s those of…of my wife.”
The preacher gazes toward the womenfolk as they busily pick green beans. Sarah stoops among them, her red hair ablaze in the afternoon sun.
“And how has Sarah trespassed against God?”
“Sarah avoids you, preacher,” Billy says. “She doesn’t take baptism every morning. And for that, I am sorry.”
“She will see the light,” the preacher says. “With time. She will make a goodly wife.”
Billy sighs and looks away. His voice is despondent. “I like to believe so, preacher. But…”
He falls to silence.
“But?” the preacher says.
“But I fear she is going astray,” Billy says, his voice trembling. “She…disappears sometimes. Goes missing. At night…”
“And you believe she is meeting with someone else among my flock?” the preacher says, his gray eyes grim.
“No, no!” Billy says, hastily. “I would never doubt my neighbor. I know we are all Faithful here.”
The preacher turns his gray eyes upon the young man, his gaze burnishing and unblinking; steadfast as the sun itself. “Then what do you suspect?”
Billy looks to his wife kneeling among the green beans, then lets his eyes drift away in defeated silence.
The preacher’s voice is softer.
“Billy? If you suspect something, you must speak it, if not to unburden yourself, then at least to unburden the air. Unspoken suspicions are phantoms that grow in power and darken all that they touch with their shadows.”
“I don’t know, preacher,” Billy says, heavily. “Maybe it is just a phantom in my head.”
The preacher nods. “Do you know what dispels phantoms?”
“What?” Billy says, looking up with expectant hope at the preacher.
“The sun,” the preacher says. “And honest labor beneath the sun.”
“You’re right, preacher,” Billy says. “I need to work off this restlessness.”
Billy returns to the crops, taking up a hoe and weeding alongside the other members of the flock. The preacher watches him for a long moment, then turns his eyes elsewhere. Like bloated deerflies his black pupils wander about slowly, restlessly, from person to person, coming, at length, to Billy’s wife, Sarah. Her hair is as blood among the beans. She glances up, notices the preacher’s gaze, and turns quickly away.

After dinner—when the long day has settled its ashes on the horizon—the preacher reads to his flock passages from his bible. He stands tall while they sit low before him, wet with the sweat of their labors as if they have only recently emerged from their baptism in the river.
“You will know them by their fruits,” the preacher reads. “Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruits…”
Billy listens attentively, but is clearly distressed. His wife is not beside him, nor among the congregation. The preacher notices this, too, but says nothing. He reads until the fire dies out in the West, then wishes his flock a good evening and the sleep of the righteous. His flock scatters to their various concerns; some to chores, others to conversation and innocent pastimes.
As the preacher walks toward his tent he is intercepted by the wife of one of his followers.
“Preacher, that was a fine sermon,” she says.
“The Lord saw fit to make it so,” the preacher says.
She follows him for some time, quietly.
“I was curious,” she says as he reaches his tent. “Why not baptize your flock at dusk, too, preacher? Why let their sins follow them into their dreams?”
The preacher does not face her. His tent is as tall as he is, and is arranged on tall wooden posts. He does not look at the young woman, even as she peers boldly up at him. He parts the flap of his tent, holding it with one hand while he stands erect, tall, like a dark sentinel whose dark hair reaches the darkening sky and its nebulous stars. His eyes do not meet her, even still.
“So you may see the fruits of your sins bloom in the night,” the preacher says. “So you may dream the guilt that you harvest from sins and learn from them the lessons upon waking, otherwise you will waken in the next life not to Heaven, but to the flaming orchard that is Hell.”
She snorts, then leaves. The preacher retires inside his tent.

The moon is pale as a salmon’s belly. The wolves howl in the distant mountains to welcome the moon. The fires die around the settlement and the flock retires to bed.
A voice calls faintly to the preacher from beyond his tent.
“Preacher? Preacher, can I have a word? Please?”
The preacher rises from bed, then goes quickly to the flap.
“Billy?” he says.
“Yes, preacher,” Billy says, glumly. “I am sorry, preacher.”
“Give me a moment, Billy, and I will be out.”
The preacher pulls on his long-johns and then his black robe. He regards his bed for a moment, in regret, then opens the flap and exits his tent. Billy’s face is distraught in the moonlight.
“Sarah has gone missing,” he says. “Preacher, you have to help me convince her to take to the Lord’s path again.”
“She is likely making night-soil,” the preacher says.
“I’d like to believe that, preacher,” Billy says. “But she has been gone for so long now.” His eyes are as wide as a salmon’s with distress. “I’m afraid she is lost to me.”
“You must believe in the Lord’s guidance,” the preacher says, sternly. “In all things His hand works His will.”
Billy hangs his head. “I know, preacher…I know…but…”
“Do not persist in this mistaken belief,” the preacher warns him. “Or it will unmake you and all of the hard work you have done for this refuge of souls.”
“I know…preacher…but Sarah…she’s been acting strange for so long now…”
The preacher’s tone is curt. “Do you not think the Lord capable of changing hearts?”
Tears glisten on Billy’s cheeks. He trembles with indecision and doubt. His voice cracks as he speaks. “I know, preacher, but what if she has turned her back on the Lord?”
“Your doubt in the Lord’s influence is a sin,” the preacher says. He shakes his head angrily, looking from Billy back to his tent. At length, he sighs in resignation. “Come. I will baptize you again. This time, perhaps, you will feel the power of Jesus Christ and, then, the truth of these petty frets will be laid bare before you.”
“Yes, preacher.”
The preacher leads Billy to the river, his shadowy figure seemingly as tall as an onyx steeple in the moonlight. The preacher steps into the shoals, gesturing for Billy to follow. Billy hesitates but a moment, but then, too, steps into the shoals, feeling the steady flow pull at his sorrow-stricken knees. He stumbles as if burdened beneath a great weight, but the preacher steadies him.
“Billy,” the preacher says. “Doubt in your wife is doubt in the love of the Lord. Do you ask forgiveness for this human failing?”
Billy, sobbing, nods. “Yes. Please, God, I ask for forgiveness!”
The preacher puts his large palm upon Billy’s forehead, and cradles his nape gently with his other hand. The preacher pauses, hearing two wolves howl together in the distance. He then continues.
“May yesterday’s sins be washed away in the blood of Jesus Christ.”
The preacher dips Billy backwards into the river. He waits a moment, says a short prayer, and twists his hands in opposite directions. This done, he trudges back to the bank and—robe weighed down with water—emerges from the river. Returning to his tent, he enters and takes off his wet robe, long-johns, and lays down next to the figure awaiting his return.
A new day dawns and Billy’s limp body is washed away by the river, his arms outspread as he floats along an easy flow mirroring the sky.

Memories

They are only phantoms in the brain,
data within a computer drive,
a song with an echoing refrain,
the buzzing bees of a mental hive,
a book inscribed with pleasure and pain,
the retro slang from yesterday’s jive,
apparitions which we clutch in vain,
both the ripples and the deep-sea dive,
graffiti sprayed on a passing train,
the postcards from the place we arrive,
a shroud moth-eaten around its stain,
the remainders of those once alive.

Heir Abhorrent

Inborn conqueror, scepter for his rattle,
crawling belligerence, babbling for battle,
teething on a monarch’s ring, his ordained bib
soaked red in the christening blood of his crib,
collecting a toy chest of corpses, piled up,
a cool eye as he drinks from a sucky cup
that brims with bloodshed, his cherub cheeks swollen
with conquests and the coveted spoils stolen
from others whose worth is but the vaguest sense
hinging on his fickle object permanence.

Horror Writer

A monarch of nightmares,
a scribe of grotesque tales,
searching through limbic lairs
and various pits and hells
to find the dreamscapes deep
in the strange hearts of men,
like one who cannot sleep
except with eyes open,
mapping the world’s shadows
with a typewriter’s keys
to illuminate those
fears, those territories
of the soul and the mind
which, in ancient times past,
spurred men to glance behind,
not knowing if, at last,
that lurker had now sprung
to pounce atop its prey
and lick with a cold tongue
the spine, without allay,
to shiver the great ape,
to remind him of his fate,
of death without escape
and the hour…growing late.

Quite Put Out

Quite Put Out

Within the foyer, and sitting prim and proper in a high-backed chair—her spine as straight as a poker and her shadow constant and unwavering in the flickering light of the hearth—was Lady Agnes Ironside, her hair a fiery brand of curls atop an ashen face and her gown black as soot.  Her freckles flared like cinders as she spoke.
“Undoubtedly the duke is exceedingly put upon by that presumptuous woman,” she said, her red-lipped smile stiff and sharp.  “His patience will fray, given time, and with its unraveling will come the consolidation of his feelings in regard to other persons more deserving of the station and status of his especial acquaintance.”
The other ladies sat to one side of the table, their three shadows trembling among the velvet-and-white wallpaper.  They were as ash, too, but were not so constant in countenance; rather, had a window been opened late in that Winter’s night a breeze would have blown them to utter dissolution.
“And, of course, his truer feelings will bear upon him in time,” Lady Ironside said, taking a sip of tea from her teacup.  The teacup was smeared with shadows on one side, and gleamed white on the other side, like a heathen’s bone exhumed in an ancient temple.  “He will not abandon himself or his truer feelings, nor will he dishonor himself or the more deserving among his considerations by protracting this foolish infatuation.  That presumptuous naif cannot dissuade him from his better sensibilities.  Society, rank, and expectation shall all prevail.”
The three women shivered in the airy foyer, despite the hearth.  Lady Ironside remained unmoved, however.  Not one patch of skin betrayed the heat of her conviction with goosebumps or tautness.  Winter himself might whisper down her corset and she would melt him with her most languid shrug.  Or so she fancied.
“And do not think that I am unaware of his previous attachments,” Lady Ironside said to those shades in her foyer.  “Each of you enjoyed his special attentions for a time, and each of you suffered for his capricious nature.  Yet, I evince a certain defiance in my own circumstances, for I am—unlike the three of you—peerless in my pedigree and accomplishments.  For instance, not one of you were ever sufficient in the art of the piano.  I have been regarded as singular pianist distinguished by my interpretations of Mozart.  Moreover, I am a soprano that— had necessity in life existed and privilege been absent—I could have sustained a life with the lofty heights of my voice.  To these obvious virtues there must be added my natural charms, of course, and my sensibility as a friend and confidante.  In all circles of society I flourish with natural acumen, and would do so whether in a small soiree of friends or, indeed, the castle of the Queen Victoria herself.  No man would find a superior consort anywhere in all of England for the diversity of societies one encounters here.  And, being naturally adaptive, I would be the superior consort anywhere else in the world.  I am, if anything, quick to learn and overcome.  I am as a fish to water, as you all well know.” 
Lady Ironside did not flush in embarrassment as she proclaimed her attributes, but sipped between each trait as if outlining the basic facts of a ledger’s contents.   The three shades nodded sympathetically, but said nothing.
“The Duke will see the error in his estimation soon enough,” she continued.  “With more temperate reflection he will come to understand that he has taken to a lowly, common oil lamp to illuminate his nights while the fires of Mt. Olympus await him here.  With me.  What warmth is there among the common hearths of England compared to the hearths of Hera and Aphrodite combined?  He is chilled in her company, I assure you.  Absolutely chilled.”
Lady Ironside sipped again from her teacup, coolly eyeing the three women before her.  A door opened within her manor, and with it came the tendrils of a cool night breeze.  The three pale shades quivered and then dissipated like ash into shadow.  Lady Ironside sat alone, untouched by the coldness.  There was a sharply needled fire in her heart, and atop the head of this needle danced fallen angels all afire with the host of the Inferno, burning with all of its hope and hurt and betrayal and embittered love.
“That must be William returning,” Lady Ironside announced.  She set her teacup aside and crossed her hands, one atop the other, in her lap.  She listened for the footsteps of her messenger as they approached.  They seemed slow; reluctant.
At length, his figure appeared in the door, bringing with it the smells of horses and sweat and the countryside.  He cleared his throat.
“Come in, William,” she said.  “Report to me at once.”
“As you wish, Miss Ironside,” he said.  He hesitated nonetheless, clearing his throat once again, and then stepped into the foyer.  He was a lean, middle-aged man in a rider’s coat with long tails.  He stood before her with his hands behind his back and his eyes averted into the fire of the hearth.  “The Duke...” he began to say, but hesitated.
“Come, come, William,” the lady said.  “Do not vex my nerves with suspense.”
“He is to be married to the young maiden,” William said.  He looked as a dog awaiting a strike upon the nose.  Instead, to his astonishment, his ear was struck with something ever the more unsettling than a spiteful hand.  Lady Ironside giggled.
“She is no maiden,” Lady Ironside said, wry amusement playing about her lips.  “No more than any of my guests here.”  She gestured to the empty couch.
William did not glance at the empty couch, but kept his eyes in the fire.
“Do you not agree, ladies?” Lady Ironside said.  “All of you were fooled by your own complacency.  The Duke would not have kept to his word for any of you, for you gave away your honor so easily.”
William went to the hearth and used the iron poker to stir the fire to a greater flame.  The night’s ride had been a frigid one.
“The Duke will abandon his newest tart as he has these three tarts past,” Lady Ironside said, her tongue prodding the air more sharply than the poker in William’s hand.  “And then he will apply to my sympathies.  Naturally, I will forgive him with majestic magnanimity, and we will be married, but there will be an interim when he must offer his pride in sincere totality to me.  I am not a hard woman, but my passions are to be cloyed for the rigors they have endured during these three weeks of cold distance.  I am not simply another shade in exile on the River Styx.  I am Aphrodite and Hera.  I am Diana and Athena.  I am not some common crumpet with a disproportional sense of self.  My vanity is meted accordingly and my virtue remains intact and intractable, regardless of what some circles may claim.”  Her lips quivered in a sneer for a moment, and her whole being was aglow with the cinders of resentment.  “There is no doubting the incumbency placed upon his good will, nor the inducement I provoke in him toward his own honor as a gentleman of noble station.  My three friends here could not have, in good faith, expected any reciprocation of obligation in regard to the Duke and their own improprieties.  No, indeed, they were grand fools to think otherwise.  I am no such fool.”
William cleared his throat in the silence, and stirred the fire in the hearth.  Lady Ironside’s shadow loomed large in the foyer, and did not flicker or flag as the flames swayed with the intrusion of the poker.
“William,” she said, her voice suddenly tremulous.  “When can I expect the Duke’s arrival?”
William paused in his labor, dumbfounded as the light from the hearth flared and subsided as if rallying for its own death throes.  His mouth gawped, the words needed for the moment escaping amorphously from between his floundering lips.  Silence was master of the household, then, and his decree was brutal.  The moment of his reign passed, however, as did the tremor in Lady Ironside’s voice as she resumed.
“In a fortnight, naturally,” she said with her habitual confidence.  “That will be more than sufficient time to travel the short distance in comfort of his carriage.  Yet, I fear dispensing with the tart will require more time, and so a fortnight will suffice exceedingly well.  Though a tart, she should be afforded an honorable discharge from his company, as he condescended to do for the other three ladies here gathered.  The Duke is a considerate gentleman and must placate such sensitive situations, however inconvenient they may be to the superior affections between the two of us.”
Lady Ironside lifted her teacup again to her lips, sipped, and set the teacup down.  The porcelain trembled as it touched the plate.
“And this interval of separation shall only stoke the love between us.  Absence makes the heart fonder, and my Duke is beyond fond of me now.”  She suddenly paused and turned to look at William’s shadowy figure stooping in front of the fire.  “Pray, in what spirit did you find the Duke?”
William mechanically stirred the kindling.  “Pleasant,” he said.  “Most pleasant, I presume.  I was not granted an audience, but I was assured by his butler that the Duke was in high spirits.  His household was bustling with preparations for a ball.”
“Indeed?” Lady Ironside said, a confusion in her green eyes.  “A ball?”  She sighed, and her freckles seemed to flare across her cheeks and bosom.  “To amuse himself in light of my absence, no doubt.  He feels it keenly and must exact extravagant distractions to diverge his forlorn disposition.  Whereas those other tarts amounted to little more than a seasonal romance—no, a holiday of fickle distraction finished before evening Mass might begin—his affection for me is a lodestar without which he would be adrift and aimless.”
William stifled a cough as the hearth’s fire belched smoke and cinder into his face.
“Miss Ironside,” he said, “should you not be retiring to bed?  The hour grows late...and cold.”
“I feel no coldness, William,” she said.  “I am a pillar of flame against such natural caprices.”
“Even so,” William said, hesitantly, “it is not good for a lady’s constitution to linger so late in the Wintertime.”
“The Spring will be here soon enough,” she said.
William grimaced at his own words.  “Not afore a fortnight, my lady.  Nor, I fear, thereafter.”
Her mouth twisted—but with the strain of anger or despair, he could not discern—and she rose from her high-backed chair.  She did not bid her servant a good night, nor the three guests haunting her with their pitiful expressions.  Instead, she turned and retreated from the foyer with a torpid stride.  Her voice quavered in the hall.
“This house is too hot.  I should like to winter someplace cooler.”

                    ***

Later that night, in the depths of the witching hour, William coughed, startling himself awake.  Sighing, he sat up in his bed and blinked into the uniform darkness of his quarters.  The fire in his hearth was nothing but smoldering embers.  He found himself drawn to the singular window serving the room with its prospect.  Pulling his robe about him, he attended the window with bleary eyes that smeared the orange moon along the cataracts of the window.  A few blinks and the cold moonlit landscape crystallized.  The garden sprawled below, its hedges buried with the supple powder of the year’s first snow.  The gazebo was as a white beehive.  The latticework of the arbor was bereft of its vines and flowers.  This was all to be expected, and yet he felt a revelation soon to be at hand.  For a moment he stared, not knowing what had drawn him from bed.  He was turning back to bed when he glimpsed a figure dancing in the snow.  The figure’s nakedness burned with flecks of cinders beneath her fiery red tresses.  He was reminded of the old tales his Irish grandmother once told him of the Leanan Sidhe, that monstrous fairy that would lure unwary men to their deaths.  Or was the figure a Bean Sidhe, portending death in the Ironside estate?
William shivered, blinked, and then saw the figure no more.  Thinking the figure a conjuration of drink, dreaminess, and his own desires, William staggered back to bed, surrendering the vision to the darkness of sleep.

                    *** 

Upon the morning the housekeeper set about the manor to rekindle the hearths.  She found Lady Ironside laying in bed, a pallor snuffing out her freckles.  Her fiery red hair had gone gray as ash and lay as lax as soot.  Though heavily laden with blankets, and having a hearth that had never extinguished throughout the night, the once radiant mistress was now cold and clammy and colorless.  Before the close of the morning she had given over the ghost from her frigid vessel.
The Duke, it must be said, married the fifth woman to have enkindled his fancy, and was no more put out by the news of the death of the fourth than news of the third, second, or first.

Talos Falls

The Halcyon birds rile and fly away
while the Nereids flee upon froth and wave,
floating over shipwrecks from yesterday
smashed by vengeful boulders thrown by the slave;
the slave: sentinel cast in giant bronze,
a titan overlooking his dear isle,
standing tall and steadfast through dusks and dawns
to defend his Crete paradise erstwhile,
but now, stricken, his strength bleeds out his heel,
and though his essence is molten passion
the colossus collapses, made to feel
the agonies of his mortal fashion.
Howling, he recalls the small, subtle hand
that twisted the vitals from the weak spot,
a lithe, little hand whose soft command
could not be resisted once it had caught
the crux, the crank, the crucial clutch that turned
to empty his veins of his sole vigor
and then strolled along the beach where love burned—
a great ruin, and her distant figure.

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.

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.