Envenomed

Black spiders dwelling in the dark,
weaving webs from their spinnerets—
unheard, unhurried, unseen…hark!
The bedposts are their minarets.
Hourglass upon fat-fed bellies,
crimson warning and silken spools,
their prey melted unto jellies,
kneeling husks becometh all fools.
Creeping midnight venom-vigils,
black prayers and turban-wound prey—
the adhan signal, the sigils
of an ancient faith here to stay.
The imams rub their steepled claws
in devotions to their venom,
hunger and death the only laws
that govern the soul within them.
And their congregation trembles,
the hollowed, hallowed husks bent low
on rugs beneath bedspread symbols—
what dreaded truths the husks must know!

Near-Death Experience

How many people have the sense
to know that all of one’s long life
is a near-death experience—
a stroll on the edge of a knife?
Death walks alongside us, always,
an escort with a cheerless grin;
he may wander, too, but he stays
within arm’s length—closer than kin.
Like your shadow, he lingers by,
unshakably close, day to day:
how fast you run, or far you fly,
means nothing, for he does not stray.
So tip your hat to the Reaper,
for he is a true lifelong friend,
though your wife may be a keeper,
Death stays with you, from start to end.

Dancing With The Devil

Jesse James liked to dance with the Devil
many a time for many a revel,
and folks thought him a hero who earned praise
as he danced with the Devil and Hell’s blaze.
Jesse took pride in his wild cowboy dance,
but could not see the flames snagging his pants
till it was too late, and no Bible quote
could snuff the flame rising up his long coat.
Still, folks fanned their hearth with tales of his crimes,
casting his shadow wide in bygone times,
but as a candle burning on each end
he lived fast, died fast, now smoke on the wind
that blackens the air for a moment more
before fading into Southern folklore.

“Things Happen For A Reason”

A young Australian girl reclines,
her legs dangling from the dock,
tacklebox, fishing poles, lines;
blind to the saltwater croc.
Her Sunday dress is pure white
like flowers before the Fall,
her hair modest and braids tight;
no ribbons or bows at all.
The girl hums a hymnal song,
lines drifting—not a quiver
to hint that something is wrong
within the silent river.
She hums a song about love
and the paradise that waits
after death, in realms “above”
such as the old Bible states.
She remembers her preacher
and a sermon last season
that was premised to teach her
“Things happen for a reason.”
He said, “Egypt’s children died
as proof of God’s great power.
Pharaoh Ramses could not hide
his child from that fateful hour.”
When she asked him how she might
avoid incurring God’s wrath,
he said, “Keep yourself pure white,
and stay on the righteous path.”
The croc springs up from beneath
like a devil from below;
she struggles, but the sharp teeth
clutch tight and do not let go.
She screams out to her father,
her mother, Jesus, her god,
but the sound drowns in water,
crying, helpless as she pawed
at the beast’s face, its wide snout,
slowing as she drowned slowly,
as she bled and faded out,
the death-roll now more holy
than any psalm or prayer
she could say in her defense
within Nature’s cruel lair—
no rhyme or reason or sense.

In Earnest Fashion

If I could walk, I would walk to the place
where bumblebees buzz about the clover
and I’d prop the shotgun against my face
for an Ernest Hemingway make-over.
I do not joke, for I do not know how
when, year after year, the dream is deferred,
and weary wrinkles grow across my brow,
so let the buckshot have the final word.
An exclamation mark is very apt
when it looks like the shotgun and the shell,
and it would waken the world while I napped
apart from this life, and its unread tale.
I would resign my dreams unto the ground
for the first time creating my own buzz
as busy bees would scatter at the sound
of what might have been, and what never was.

The Widower

The shadow
in the house,
a sad glow,
clicking mouse
as the screen
flashes bright,
tears unseen
in the night.
Solitaire
while alone,
night-owl stare,
on his own,
empty room,
empty chair,
dusty broom,
stagnant air.
He breathes in,
he sighs out,
one more win,
joy dies out.
Home was built
for his bride,
now her quilt
lays aside,
unfinished,
unfulfilled,
all he wished,
all he willed
now is gone
like his youth,
like the dawn,
this is truth:
life is hard,
it’s a trick
of each card
we don’t pick
and death comes
to wound hearts,
nothing numbs
when grief starts.
New game now
and tears spread,
thinking how
life misled
him to think
they would be
link to link—
he to she.
The clock ticks,
moon descends,
finger clicks,
this game ends
and the night
grows more still,
misty flight
of wind’s chill,
a cold hand
on his face,
Borderland,
time and space,
memories,
old, lost ghosts
of far seas
and warm coasts
now adrift,
now alone,
now a rift,
Twilight Zone.
Life is strange,
life is loss
it has range
at a toss
of the cards,
of the glass,
of the shards
when lives pass.
Fist now bruised,
screen now cracked,
heart contused,
cards now stacked
against joy,
against peace,
must destroy
till surcease.
Broken mouse,
shattered life,
darkened house,
beloved wife.

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.