Confessions And Silence

There was an old swamp that smouldered with miasmas and shadows, rotting like a dead thing gone to sludge on the edge of the woods.  No frogs chirped in its silent expanse, nor did predators stalk there, nor birds dare to fly over.  The swamp kept stagnant its secrets and its solitude, festering solitary and without unwelcome intrusion.  And no living thing, man or animal, ventured there to gaze upon its silence, nor did lantern burn there, nor Fool s Fire transpire to breathe up from amidst the miasma, but an inky blackness dominated there such that would contend with the abyssal sea.  And yet the swamp was blacker than the sea, for while the sea was a darkness for lack of light, the swamp was the very essence of shadow and darkness and death.

 Some believed the Nephilim had died there long ago, smote by God.  Some said a god died there long ago.  Some said in whispered voices so as to not provoke the anger of the village preacher that something yet more ancient than gods had died there.  Whatever its origins, it was shunned by the villagers of Clear Brook, for it was said to be cursed with foul spirits.  And the people of Clear Brook wished to possess clear souls that flowed airily to Heaven upon Death s release.  It was what they strived for beneath the preacher s watchful eye.  It was what they all wanted more than anything.

 That was, all except for Tilda.

 Tilda was the preacher s daughter.  She disliked the village, and she disliked the villagers.  She especially disliked being the preacher s daughter.  Her eleven Springs had been spent tilling the land and milking the cows.  Her eleven Summers had been spent tending the fields and cultivating the garden.  Her eleven Autumns had been spent harvesting the crops and mending the clothes.  Her eleven Winters had been spent cooped up in side the house and the church, listening to her father preach on and on and on against Sin.  Her eleven years had been spent giving and receiving Confessions.

 She hated Confessions most of all.

 Her father s sermons were dreary things.  For all his fire-and-brimstone, Tilda ofttimes found herself bored.  Adam and Eve, Original Sin, Jesus, the Resurrection, and such.  Tilda disliked these sermons, for they came from her father s mouth.  She only liked the sermons that involved specific persons such as the Witch of Endor, the Queen of Sheba, Lilith, and Judith.  She liked how her father s disgust at such women twisted his fitful lip as he read of these powerful figures whom he loathed.  She liked that he hated them so much, and hoped he would hate her as much someday.  Of all the Biblical passages she liked few though they were she particularly liked reading about Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes.  That was her favorite, also, and she often read the Book of Judith again and again after Confessions, in the silence that visited her every night.

 

 There was a witch that lived at the Borderlands between the woods and the swamp.  No one in Clear Brook spoke her name, nor had they seen her in many, many years, and those who had seen her entertained conflicting accounts of who she was and what she looked like.  They never spoke of her but with whispers, and always either with fear or loathing and a quick glance over their shoulders, lest she be standing there, summoned up by their idle talk.  The more fearful the villagers were of the witch, the more curious Tilda became.  After eleven years of feeding a strong curiosity, that curiosity was a beast unto itself, and she let it lead her as it would by its leash.  She was now determined to meet the witch.  She knew it was her destiny.

 And so one night Tilda crept away from her father s house, sneaking out under cover of a starless sky.  The woods were a haunted place, full of bats and toads and foxes other things that were better not named.  Tilda had learned to follow the moss on the trees to find a swamp witch.  It was common knowledge.  Thus, she followed the green glow until she came to the ramshackle hut in the woods, just on the edge of the silent expanse of the swamp.  A candle illuminated the hut s window, and through the cracks of the door Tilda saw the glow of the witch s fireplace.

  Come in, my little fawn,  a voice cackled from within.   I have been expecting you.

 Ever intrepid, Tilda pulled the creaky door open and walked into the hut.  It was a small hut, and the witch was withered and small also.  She was an old crone  as witches often were and she was swathed in a damp, grayish-white cloak.  Her face was not ugly, and may have been pretty once upon a time, but it had been furrowed badly by Time s plowshare, cultivating the face with a sly wisdom and cunning which Tilda envied as a thing which must have inhabited the faces of all her heroines.

  You will make me a witch,  Tilda said.  She did not cower from the witch s scowl, but was emboldened by it.   You will teach me to transform into hares and cats and to become a shadow to stalk and haunt the guilty, and to make horses of unfaithful men that must run all night until their feet become as hoofed stumps.

  Do I know such things?  the witch pondered dubiously.  She scratched at her chin, which was no hairier than any other woman s of the same-seeming age.   I do think that your fancies have gotten the better of you, my little fawn.

  I am no fawn,  Tilda said defiantly.   I am crowned like the sickle moon and I will be treated as such.  I am the daughter of Woman alone, of Lilith, and will grow my antlers with or without your help.

 The witch smiled within her shadowy hood.

  Dear me, you are a presumptuous one,  she said.  She looked the preacher s daughter up and down from her wooden shoes to her plain gray dress, and up to her brown hair which her father forcibly cut every month lest Vanity overtake her soul.   You have the will for the Craft, but have you the talent?

 Glaring with green eyes, Tilda went to the fireplace and reached into its burning belly.  She withdrew three burnt twigs, her hand unharmed.

 The witch did not smile, nor did she frown, nor had she any emotion easily legible upon her wizened face.   And how did you manage that pretty feat, my little fawn?

  By reaching between the fire and the heat,  Tilda said proudly.   Between the smoke and the kindling, where the Betwixt resides.

  You speak rightly enough,  the witch said.   And you manage a magic…of a crude sort.  But what of your soul, my little fawn?  What can you manage of it?

 Tilda scowled.   You are squandering time, beldam.  The cock will crow soon and then I must leave with nothing to show for a sleepless night.

 The witch s face did not twist with frightful wrath, nor did it smile, pleased with itself.  For a moment  just a moment  the beldame s face lost all emotion and became as a hollow mask, the spark of presence in her dark eyes suddenly vacant as holes in a dead tree.  This passed at a wink, and wry humor resumed the face.

  Petulance is an overeager frog leaping into the cauldron,  she remarked.  She stood up from her stool or perhaps seemed to rise, or had grown larger within that small hut.  Perhaps both.  At length, she settled down, or shrank.  Her voice was low; calm and quiet.

  Know you lemongrass, my little fawn?

 Tilda could only nod, for there was a disquieted frog in her throat where the petulance had once resided.

  And what of belladonna?

 Again Tilda nodded.

  And hemlock?  Wolfsbane?  Yarrow root?

 Tilda nodded to all three in succession.

 The witch smiled wryly.   Then fetch some for the nightfall to come and bring them to me.  I will fetch that which requires a more adept hand.  Baby s breath.  A good man s guilt.  A double heart.  And so on.  Now leave me.

 Tilda remained but a moment longer, swaying in indecision.  She wished to be a powerful witch, too, and yet the vacancy she had seen in the witch s face had unnerved her.  A glint in the witch s eye sent her to the door and back home.  It was such a glint as a cat s eye had upon spotting a mouse.

 

      ***

 

 Laurie Swead found her baby dead at sunrise.  She was inconsolable, despite the best efforts of the village womenfolk.  Her husband, Michael, blamed himself for the baby s death, for he had left the window open and had forgotten to close it during the chilly night.  Laurie had glimpsed a shadow leaving through the window, which she tearfully avowed to bear a resemblance to a swarm of black gnats.  Thereafter, people spoke of witchcraft, but none dared to enter the woods and confront the witch.

 Tilda s father was summoned.  He counseled the aggrieved parents.  He did not console, Laurie or Michael, for that was not his way.  Later that evening, however, Laurie was discovered consoling in secret with her neighbor, Brandon Blackwell, who took the death of her child as if one of his own.  When pressed by Tilda s father and Michael Swead, Laurie revealed certain sordid transgressions which muddied the names of the clandestine mourners.  Before nightfall the whole of Clear Brook had heard of the filth of their secret endeavors, as well as the true parentage of the dead baby.

 Meanwhile Tilda gathered the ingredients requested of her by the witch in the misty woods.  While upon her errand she saw many a strange thing.  The woods were a haunted place, after all.  Whereas the swamps were silent, the woods were alive and teeming.  Through the mist voices called to one another, incorporeal.  Trees shifted and shuffled elsewhere.  Hills fell to lounging and vales rose like cats with their backs up in anger.  The silhouettes of wolves wheeled in the misty distance, walking on hind-legs as men do.  They paused in a glade, looked at Tilda, and then passed by.

 Undeterred and single-minded, Tilda gathered into a wicker basket all such that she required.  Then she returned home to await nightfall, sleeping in the meantime.  Unfortunately, her father was in a foul mood after the sordid revelations of the day.  When he saw the basket of flowers and roots he became enraged.  Shaking her awake, he grabbed Tilda by the wrist and yanked her up to her feet roughly, dragging her out to the yard.

  You are playing with devilish mischief!  he roared, indicating the basket.  He had Tilda hold her hands up whereupon he lashed her palms many a time with a switch, each smack chastising the hands that performed the sin.   When next you think to dabble with the Devil, think on these lashes and let the pain guide you in a purer direction!”

 He was in no mood for Confessions, for which Tilda was relieved.  Her hands stung and were bruised.  She returned to her bedroom.  She did not sulk.  She did not brood or bemoan her aches as children often do when punished more than their due.  She only thought of what she usually thought of when alone and unto her own thoughts.  She thought of power.  She thought of revenge.

 And so, at the darkest hour of night when her father exulted in his own righteous dreams of witch-burnings and book bonfires  Tilda crept out of her father s house and went to find her willow basket.  It had belonged to her mother and was one of the few things she had left of her mother, other than her drab dresses.

 Her father had burned all of her ingredients, and the wicker basket.  Tilda wept but a moment, then drew herself up.  A witch had to be stronger than this, she thought.

 Though empty-handed, Tilda ventured out into the woods nonetheless, following the glowing green moss and once again arriving at the witch s hut.  When Tilda entered the hut she found the witch standing over a black cauldron which had not been there the night before.  Beneath the cauldron was a fire pit, which had also not been there the night before.  The hut seemed larger, too, but the witch wore the same damp grayish-white cloak as before.

  Hello, my little kitten,  the witch said as she stirred the cauldron.  Her voice was different.  It was lower, older.   She said you would bring what was needed.

 Tilda approached the witch with empty hands.   I had gathered them,  she said, trying not to cry, but my father took them away. The yarrow root and the wolfsbane and…

 She fell silent as she realized that this witch was not the same witch as before.  She had a long nose, a shovel chin, and had never been pretty, even when young.

  Those never mattered, my little kitten,  the different witch said.   What matters is the trouble of gettin  them.  The willingness.  The sacrifice.  Especially the punishment for gettin  them.

 The witch gestured Tilda toward the cauldron.

  Come, my kitten.  Hold your hands in the steam.  It won t hurt you a bit.  I promise.  In fact, it will take the hurt away, clean as rainwater through cheesecloth.

 Truth be told, Tilda was afraid to go near the cauldron.  Part of the child within her screamed that the witch would pluck her up and drop her headfirst into the boiling liquid.  But the louder, angrier part of Tilda thought of power, and of revenge.  The hatred of her father drove her as a slave-master.

 Thus driven, Tilda stepped toward the cauldron, raising her bruised hands up and holding them over the lip of the fat-bellied pot.  The steam lifted around her hands, and lifting away from her went the throbbing pain in her palms.  The pain unwound from every nerve and muscle and bone, evaporating like pure water spilled on a hot Summer s day.

  There we have it, my kitten,  the witch said.  She shook one sleeve over the cauldron, and powdery mist showered the soup from that cavernous sleeve.   Now you must drink it.  Drink it all, my kitten, and you will possess the power you seek

Tilda crinkled her nose at the foul liquid.  She baulked at the idea that she should even smell it, for it stank of fungus and mildew and rot and stagnation.  Her repulsion stayed her.

  Do you desire power or not, my kitten?!  the witch screeched.

 The memories of Confession returned to Tilda, in a sickly wave, and it overpowered with its nausea any nausea she might feel from drinking the most rancid blackwater.  Taking the ladle, Tilda drank the cauldron dry, scoop by scoop. It was not so terrible as she feared.  Rather, the soup tasted earthy, familiar, comforting.  The more she drank, the more she craved of it.  She never stopped to wonder how she could drink so much without bursting like a sheep s gut stuffed overfull.  Nor did she grow heavy with the cauldron s yield.  Conversely, she grew lighter.  So very light.  Almost as if she were floating in the air, buoyant and scattered in her thoughts, yet collected, too, in her intentions.  She was as a swarm of wasps rallying against an intruder within the hive.  Dizzied with power, her thoughts spiraled around one notion.

 Silence.

  Now is the time, my little kitten,  the witch said approvingly. Only, the witch seemed insubstantial, like the steam of the cauldron, or the smoke off the fire pit.  The whole hut grew thin, illusory, like a ghost in moonlight, or a dream soon to vanish at waking.   Now is the time to use the power as becomes you, my little kitten.  Do as you will, and do much.

 As a dream Tilda went wandering.  Out the window of the hut she went, and through the woods, untouchable by any spider or serpent or beast.  The night was yet dark and she floated through it as lightsome as a cloud.  Coming to the village, she sensed magic all around her.  She was its source, and it was beyond her also, floating from afar the witch s hut on the Borderlands.

 Tilda just so happened upon a man near the brook for which Clear Brook claimed its name.  He was making night soil, his trousers round his ankles as he squatted over the brook, holding himself up awkwardly, his fist clenched around a hapless sapling.  He was not supposed to defecate in the brook no one was but he did so anyway.  His name was Wallace Eckridge. He was a drunk most days.  He liked to eye Mrs. Abbott when she washed her linen in the brook.  She liked to give him an eyeful for his trouble, too, with all her bending and moaning as she toiled.  Her husband was a carpenter and lame in a way that carpentry could never aid him.  Everyone in Clear Brook knew such things.

 Wallace was someone Tilda thought good to test her newfound powers on.  She waited until he had finished making night soil, and had fixed his trousers, and then she approached him, floating in the air.  He blinked at her in confusion.

  Wallace Eckridge,  she said.   You will come with me.

 Wallace was drunk, as usual, but he seemed to obey her at once, following her as she floated away from Clear Brook.  

 Tilda could not say why she wanted to take him to the witch s hut.  She did not think too much on it, but rather was intoxicated with her power over him.  She knew where she needed to go, and so she went, leading him behind her with an invisible lure.  The creatures in the woods did not bother him.  Rather, they went fleeing from him as if he was a thing diseased.  A leper, perhaps, or Pestilence himself.  Even the wolves that walked as men shunned him, fleeing on all fours as if they had lost their minds.

 To the hut they came at last.  The witch thanked Tilda for the offering.  Tilda did not see where Wallace Eckridge disappeared.  She was too concerned with listening to the witch tell her the secrets Tilda had earned.

  It is true what they say,  the witch said, her face now fat and round and swollen with jowls.   True power does not die, nor does it rot away.  It may stagnate, but that merely strengthens it.   Her voice was articulate and precise, like a highborn lady.   Like yeast transforming barley and water into beer, so too do the old gods still hold power here, growing stronger in the festering morass.  My little gosling, their power has found other forms whereby to manifest, even as they lay dead in their own filth.  They grow stronger.

  What are they?  Tilda asked.

  What is earth?  the witch countered.   What is the sky?  What is hate?  What is hunger?  What is the meaning of things?  So many questions lead to the same place, my little gosling, and no nearer to the truth of things.

  Are the gods of the swamp the enemies of the Christian god?  she asked.

  How can one have an enemy of something that does not exist?  the witch said, her pudgy face rounded in enigmatic pleasure.   We exist, do we not, little lamb?  And that is all that matters.

 Tilda listened to the witch until dawn, then returned home.  The power had gone from her at daybreak.  She no longer felt as if she were floating along eddies of air.  She no longer felt as if she could puppeteer the world s men with a word.  She felt naked, and she felt bereft, and she craved more of the power that she had so fleetingly possessed.

 

 Her father awaited her in her bedroom.  But before he could beat her for being out of doors before sunrise  or worse, make Confession of her he was summoned away.  Wallace Eckridge s wife discovered that her drunken husband was missing, and the village feared further witchcraft.  At first Mrs. Eckridge assumed Mrs. Abbott had finally accepted Wallace s lecherous advances.  Consequently, the two women got into an altercation forthwith such as two wildcats with their tails tied together.  They were pulled apart, with some effort, by the villagers.  Even so, Mr. Abbott looked at his wife askew, and beat her for the suspected infidelity.

 But soon it became apparent that Mrs. Abbott did not, in fact, center into the mystery of Wallace s disappearance.  She had stayed up with her youngest daughter all last night, the latter suffering terribly from colic.  Her eldest daughter bore witness to this, having also stayed up most of the night with her mother and youngest sister.  This only cast suspicion upon other women in the village.  Wallace was known to have a wandering eye and a wayward heart.  Much ado was made of it before the day was done.

 

 Before nightfall Tilda s father returned.  He locked the doors to their house and then commanded Confession of his daughter.  Afterwards, he left her bedroom and Tilda anticipated the long drawing of shadows into night.  Her tears were her sole company as she waited.  Finally, when she knew by the sonorous sound of snoring that her father had fallen asleep, Tilda opened her window and slumped out into the night, limping into the woods and heading hurriedly to the hut to retake her power once again.  She wept as she walked, each step painful.  Yet, the pain only intensified her resolve.

 The witch that met her in her the hut wore a grayish white cloak like the other three, but her face was a leathery brown such as a tanner would think too frayed with use.

  Hello, my little lamb,  the witch said softly.

 Tilda did not want the witch to see her tears, and so stood with her back to her, staring into the fireplace.

  My little lamb,  the witch said, her voice a dry wispy grass in the wind.   My poor, dear little lamb.  Come and take of the power which this world owes you in all your woe.  Let it console you.  Let it invigorate and strengthen you.

 Tilda resented the witch speaking of her pain for there seemed a mocking edge to her overly tender tone but even so, Tilda did drink of the cauldron once again.  To her great joy she became at once airy and lightsome as a swarm of insects, her former pains and sorrows forgotten.  Aloft now, the world seemed all beneath her; as insubstantial as the dreams of a dog, kicking in its sleep.  Thus conveyed, Tilda left the hut  which was more a house now than before and went floating through the woods.

 Tilda had her mind set on one person, and so she floated unseen through the village of Clear Brook.  At length she came to the cabin of Mr and Mrs Abbott.  Mrs. Abbott slept alone in the bed, for she refused to let her husband sleep near her.  Tilda went in through the open window, and through the cracks in between the cabin s logs, and through the holes in the thatch roof, coming upon Mr. Abbott on a rug in the kitchen.

  You have been naughty, Mr. Abbott,  Tilda said, for you do not believe the innocence of your wife.  Now you will come away with me, you wicked man.

 Tilda s newfound powers swirled around the man, and into him.  She led the man out to the witches  hut and, as soon as they entered, Mr. Abbott disappeared.  Alongside him disappeared Tilda s powers once more.  Her exultation was short-lived, and it pained her almost as much as Confession had.

  My dear little pup,  the witch said, gladdened by Tilda s return; and altogether undisturbed by Mr. Abbott s sudden evanescence.  Her age-mottled face wrinkled with a smile, a birthmark like a bloodstain flaring upon one eye.   You have done so well.  And you will continue doing well, my dear little pup.  For you are strong in the ways of us witches.

 The witch laughed, and Tilda smiled, ignoring the pest of a suspicion that the witch was, in fact, mocking the young woman.

  What do you do with the men I bring to you?  she asked.

 The witch s laughter ebbed away into a slyly knowing smile.   My pup, it is but a matter of conference.  We have discourse with them, and bid them be quiet.  In time, they welcome the Silence.

 This all meant nothing to Tilda.  She could not understand the witch s real meaning.

  They are dead?  she ventured.

  No more than the gods,  the witch said.   My little pup.

 

 Powerless once again, Tilda returned home at the crack of dawn.  Her father was not there.  He was busy blessing the water from the brook.  He scooped it up in a bucket and sanctified it to make holy water for Mass later that evening.  He also used it for Baptisms.  He refused to use any other water because he said the free-flowing water of the brook was purer, cleaner, godlier than any other wellspring or lake, for it never sat still in idleness, but industriously worked itself immaculate, shedding its wickedness with tireless effort.  As a man must, he claimed.

  We should aspire to be as this brook,  he often admonished his flock.   For the way to purity is through rigors of ceaseless devotion and conviction.  We must always flow, shedding our impurities though the white-water rocks should seek to detain us and shred us with their strife.

 Tilda hated this lecture most of all, for he always took her home afterward for Confession, and she always felt terrible after Confession.

 No one in the village knew what came of Mr. Abbott.  Some suspected that he went hunting for Wallace Eckridge, aspiring for revenge.  Others whispered that they were both of them Sodomites and had left together to live elsewhere in sin.  Whichever was the worse sin was what the villagers of Clear Brook believed.

 

 Tilda returned to the witch that night, after Mass and Confession.  A new witch welcomed her and bid her drink of the cauldron.  Tilda then went floating away through the woods once again, reborn within her swarming power.

 Tilda happened upon Mrs. Eckridge near the edge of the woods.  The vexed woman was searching for her faithless husband, cussing him and calling for him in turns.  When she saw Tilda riding the currents of air, she gawped idiotically.  For her part, Tilda felt a compulsion to fetch the woman back to the hut.

  Come away with me, Mrs. Eckridge,  Tilda demanded.   I will take you to your husband and put your heart at rest.

 The woman s face went slack and she followed Tilda deeper into the woods.  Like Mr. Abbott and Mr. Eckridge, Mrs. Eckridge walked with her eyes open, yet the look in them was faraway, as if the woman was dreaming.  They came to the house-sized hut and entered.  Mrs. Eckridge disappeared as soon as Tilda passed the threshold.  The witch who had a smooth face as dark as rich soil told her more arcane secrets.

  Primordial gods do not fade.  They merely sleep, and their dreams become reality itself.  We are all but the miasmic dreams of the elder gods who lay beneath the stagnant waters of the swamp.  All our lives we owe to those undying gods and their endless dreams upon the Borderlands.

 

 The next day Tilda s father was in a foul mood.  Mrs. Eckridge was missing now, too, and no one had seen what had become of her.  Her neighbor, Mrs. Westerly, said she had heard Mrs. Eckridge calling for her husband near the woods, and now everyone was certain the poor woman had lost her senses in those woods, and her life.  Perhaps even her soul.  The village turned to their preacher, and their preacher turned to the Old Testament.

  It is God s wrath,  he proclaimed, and He has forsaken those among His flock that have gone awry in their piety.  We must, thus, pray and embrace His love with renewed faith.  We must be vigilant against the powers of Evil.  We must armor ourselves in our belief or fall into everlasting Hellfire.

 Tilda s father was so angry that he was particularly rough during Confession that night.  After he went to sleep, Tilda limped her way to the woods where the witch dwelled.  The witch greeted Tilda in the same drab gray robe, but her face was pale and sunless as snow in the darkest winter.

  My dear little fledgling,  the witch said.   Whatever is the matter with your legs?

 She offered Tilda a soft, ladderback chair that had not been there upon any previous night.  Tilda was too sore to sit in it, however.  She muttered through her

 “I want to complete my transformation,  she said.   I want to be a master witch with all of my powers at beck and call.  Not just borrowed powers.  I want to be a master adept, like all of you!

  Oh, my little fledgling,  the witch sighed.   That is such a momentous change.  Are you sure you should not like to remain as you are now?  Limited, but perfectly adequate to ensorcel most people?  Surely it is enough, isn t it?  It is not as if you wish to enchant your own blood…do you?   The witch smiled furtively.

  I am ready,  Tilda vowed, tears streaming down her cheeks.   I wish to be untethered.  I wish to be a conduit unimpeded by flesh or blood or family ties!

  If you wish it,  the witch said, then your wish shall be granted.

 The witch motioned toward the black cauldron in the center of the vast house.  A row of steps appeared in front of it, and Tilda ascended these quickly.  But when she came face to face with the immaculate blackness of the cauldron she hesitated.  Looking down into that steaming blackness brought to her a great fear, and an excitement, but above all that reigned the rage and the thirst for revenge.  Whatever the cost, she thought, it was not so terrible as Confession.  The thought of one more Confession trembled her and galvanized her resolve to gain power, no matter the cost to anyone, including herself.  She looked at the witch, and recalled all of the other witches.  Each witch seemed the perfect figure of power, a natural matriarch ready and capable of toppling the putrescent patriarchs that dominated village life in Clear Brook, and village life all around the world.  They were not debased.  They were exultant.  They knew more power in their deathly silences than was ever evidenced in a fire-and-brimstone sermon from atop the dais.

 The steam was not hot.  It was cool, like mist.  It reminded her of a heady miasma.  She extended her right foot over the shadowy soup.  Slowly she lowered her toes into the liquid.  It did not burn.  It did not scald her.  Trusting the power more now, Tilda stepped off the top of the stairs and plunged down into the cauldron, her head spinning with thoughts of freedom at long last.

 What did she feel?  She felt herself sinking…sinking…sinking.  Her body was dragged down beneath its unwanted weight and its fleshy weakness.  All grew dark and still within the cauldron.  Deathly.  Soon, however, she felt life stir within her.  It bloomed upward, rising defiant against the rot.  The blooming elation was as dough rising in an oven, nurtured by the heat of a fire; only it was a clammy silence that nurtured and nourished the power within her.  It reminded her of something blooming from rot, but she could not remember what.  At its culminating expanse she felt herself burst free from the swollen form she used to know, lifting freely into the air; liberated from the weakness of her earthly shell; freed from the prison that confined her and restrained her from this ubiquitous power that existed long before even the swamp existed; long before Mankind existed.

 With her newfound power amassed around her like a cloud, Tilda floated homeward, light and airy and yet possessed of a power that could topple gilded empires into the stagnant swamp and its dead gods.  She floated freely now, more freely than ever before, and she went with her unfathomable power to Clear Brook.  To the brook itself and its baptismal waters, and to her hypocritical father.

 She found him abed, a cross clutched in his hands as if to fend off demons that might, at any moment, drag him off to Hell.  Tilda floated above him for a time.  Then she entered him through his empty spaces  as he so often did her while in Confession and she awoke him, though he remained enthralled to her.  Taking her time, she led him through the woods.  The witches, one and all, awaited them in their hut.  The hut was much larger than before, and they all cackled as the preacher entered.  Their laughter seemed faraway to Tilda, and insubstantial as a faint breeze along swamp grasses.  Before she let her father disappear, however, she bid him speak his own Confession for all the witches to hear.

 He spoke as a man in a daze, his eyelids half-closed.

  I have made abomination with my daughter,  the preacher said.   I have rutted upon her as I would my wife, now dead these eleven years.  I have sullied her, and made ruin of her.  I have preached with forked tongue in two different directions, the twain clutching at Sin betwixt.  I am a Liar, and a Sodomite, and the Hypocrite.  I have blasphemed of Confession, making of it what it should not be.  I have exchanged the Spiritual for the Carnal, and at the expense of Innocence.  God does not forgive me, and I am destined to Hell.

  No,  the witches said as one.   Not Hell.  To something…purer.  To something Holier.  To the Silence.

 Tilda s father vanished into the Silence.

 

 Drifting with the fog, and the miasma, and neither being intentional or willful, but accomplishing what she wanted regardless, the entity that was Tilda emptied the village of all of its people in time, giving them to the witches in the hut at the edge of the swamp.  As in dreams did Tilda do this, floating in cycles of birth and death and birth again, neither state truly distinguished from the preceding, as if a sleeper waking unto deeper dreams than before.  The witches did not show themselves to her after a time, nor did she choose when she left or returned with an ensorceled villager.  She had to wander far to find people to bring back to the hut, in time, after Clear Brook had run dry of people.

 Only sometimes it seemed that the hut became as immaterial as she sometimes felt she saw through it, then, and all of it switches and furnishings and then she saw nothing but the swamp itself, stagnant and endless.  Among its miasmic expanse were trees and logs half-sunken in the black water, and riddled with strange mushrooms.  And sometimes these rotten trees did not look like trees and logs, but instead like the bones of gigantic things that had died and festered long ago.  And there were smaller bones, and skulls, and bodies that had not rotted completely to mush, even as they sprouted the mushrooms that burst open to release the airy spores that floated away, phantomlike, with the four winds to seek out living creatures.  One corpse was small, but riddled with mushrooms, its brown hair oily and tangled over its clammy forehead, its drab gray dress soiled by inky waters; one eye hollowed out and the other staring blankly, its green iris a fairy ring of tiny mushrooms that bloomed amidst the stagnant Silence.

Fair, Dark, And Trembling

Born beneath a weeping willow
where winds never dared to billow
the sisters three seemed blessed at first,
though, given time, seemed more so cursed
by the names given, and fortunes
dictated by the eldritch runes.
When they were born, the sisters three
filled their proud parents with such glee
as the angels in most high skies
in their exultant maker’s eyes.
Fair, Dark, and Trembling, the lasses
grew up apart from the masses
in the woods, by the little creek,
where the willow trees often speak.
Distinguished by their features
they were apt-named, comely creatures
without equal in that kingdom,
nay, nor the world in all its sum.
Fair was of hair gilded flaxen
that she seemed a purebred Saxon
and Nordic goddess, gold and pure,
graceful, nimble, her step so sure
that she danced on slippery rocks
as fleet-footed as the Fae fox.
Lovelier, there were none more so:
stars in her eyes, and skin aglow
that the sun seemed to pause apace
while beaming on her freckled face.
When she giggled others did feel
her sweetness, the dear daffodil
spreading her joy like many seeds
which none so wise dared deem as weeds,
sowing where there could be sown
a bliss by her presence alone.
Alas, a blessing may, too, curse,
and so it was, her fate adverse.
Catching the eye of the prince
so handsome and rich, therefore hence
entranced the two by the other
that neither would love another
their ensorcelled hearts demanded
prince and maiden become banded
despite his pledge to a neighbor
whose father promised the saber
should the pact not be held so true
by one side as the other, too.
Therefore though it flattered the pride
of both the parents and the bride
a war began soon after they
announced the coming joyous day.
First came the splendid celebration
joyous across the wide nation,
pomp aplenty, and holy vows
and banners, bugles, and crowns on brows,
then came the wars and the bloodshed,
the piling high of mingled dead
until, at length, the angry host
were driven from the far-off coast
and back to their lands in the East
like a cur, a brow-beaten beast.
Fair, and her husband, then rejoiced
while their people quietly voiced
anger and sorrow at the war,
calling Fair a worm-apple whore.
But the new rulers paid no mind
to the scowls and whispers, so blind
with Love they heard nothing at all
that should echo coarse through their hall.
Then came the bud of the next heir,
next liege, sure likewise to be Fair
and for a time the whispers stopped,
if only because the axe chopped
all talk short as the days went on,
bringing with them a bloody dawn
to peasant and noble in turn
and anyone not yet to learn.
Soon Fair swelled fertile in her womb
like the daffodil soon to bloom,
but with the pangs she wilted so wan
while her glow faded, on and on,
draining fast from her golden face
till a pallor assumed its place.
Like the most fleeting of flowers
her life did but last a few hours
before she died and left the earth
for the sake of a vain stillbirth.

Erstwhile, Dark saw what thus became
of girls gifted by name and fame,
and being wiser more than Fair,
Dark reveled in her raven hair.
Dark was pale like the Gaul or Goth,
like moonlit-powder of the moth,
and her black hair was a shadow
such as only witches may know
when looking into the deep pit
of their cauldron, cold and unlit.
She courted midnight with her art
to seek the most infernal heart,
for she had talents just as strong
as sister Fair had in her song
and, so, used her Black magic skills
to fly at night over the hills
on a stick woven of willow limbs,
following the sound of fell hymns
to a misty, covenant glade
where a coven of witches prayed.
Herein she found her kindred kind—
women awake and not so blind,
for Dark dreamed quite oft of a life
beholden to none, never wife
to any man, nor any god,
free as Lilith drifting abroad
to the basins of Babylon,
haunting bedrooms from dusk to dawn.
Whereas Fair was the favored child,
(beauty peerless and temper mild)
Dark would have been most pretty
had she been of some other three,
but be it as it may, Dark was
judged on the sisterly mark ‘twas
and could do no more to ever change
the scale set so by bloodline’s range.
Nor did this aggrieve Dark quite much
as the rules upon her, and such,
for she spoke not as daughters should,
instead shunning what some thought good,
like reading the Bible each day,
going to church to kneel and pray,
and fearing the wise midwife folk
of whom the preacher often spoke
unkindly, fearing their knowledge
would tempt his flock to thus pledge
to them instead of his theory
about Heaven and misery.
And so Dark became the black sheep
of the flock in the preacher’s keep,
for she so loathed hypocrisy
that she oft sought apostasy.
Gathered in the belladonna
she looked a fell Madonna
who had at beck and call the night
and all its shadows and moonlight.
Just so, she dared never conceive
that on this sacred Endor Eve
that Satan would come before her
with gifts to sway and implore her
to lay with him and so beget
a child the whole world would regret.
Enthroned in nocturnal power
in the glade’s shade-brimming bower,
Dark lay with that horn-crowned Satyr
amorous as any traitor.
The other witches watched within
the woods where they all grinned akin
to wolves, or buzzards, or weasels,
caterwauling, shrill as seagulls.
It was not long before spilled seed
beset, begat, began to breed,
the growth so fast, the pangs so great,
that Dark split apart, like a date,
screaming and bleeding at her sex
while the hags spoke, as if a hex
the hymnal blasphemies of old
to strengthen the child in the mold.
The child came forth as from the tomb,
expelled a corpse beset by doom
and so enraged was that great Foe
that he trammeled Dark in shadow,
then left her bloodied in the glade
where she died amidst daytime shade.
Dark unto dark did thereby pass,
all her clever thoughts now but grass.

Oh, but Trembling was lass so weak
that oftentimes she dared not speak
for fear of hurting her thin throat,
the lissome girl sad and remote.
She knew what came of her sistren
and prayed that they could, at last, ken,
the choices they made and each crime
for which they would burn for all time.
She had no voice, but she could pray,
and did so, often all the day,
a judge meanwhile masked in silence
pretending saintly compliance
as she laid baleful eyes elsewhere—
a basilisk’s cold, stony glare.
She thought on Dark and Fair, their ends,
and knew they died to make amends
for Dark’s pride, come before the fall,
and Fair’s vanity, that old thrall,
and vowed against the same mistake,
knowing herself of purer make.
Indeed, she grew as a daisy
from the deaths of those whose stay she
could not abide, nor then pity,
feeling only an enmity.
She thought herself a chosen soul
and pledged to serve all her life whole
to the God of the Holy Tome
while still cloistered at home.
Yet, she was ever quivering
as if in the cold, shivering
and did little, but wavering
ever in her room, quavering
like a hare hiding in its den
while the hawk circles round again.
Knowing she would never marry
and finding the world so scary
she joined a convent faraway
and pleased herself often to say
she would never fall prey to Man
nor the sins of the flesh, her plan
to die a virgin, bride of God—
a fate which kept her overawed.
But a foul star had overseen
the sisters three, its twinkling sheen
as that of a crone meaning ill
above the willow, and its Will.
The longships came and beached anon,
coming ashore with noonday sun
and laying siege till the walls fell
while the convent rang loud its bell.
Trembling knew not where to go
and a Viking struck her a blow
and clutched her roughly like a sack
of spoils to claim, returning back
to his ship, then upon the sea,
following a wind Northwesterly
and coming to a frigid land
whereat she was a serving-hand
and a bed-warmer for the Nord
who was her husband, and her lord.
Ever Trembling and cold, she wept
and in the night she never slept,
but prayed to her god that she may
go to Heaven, without delay,
but she never went, never died,
and knew she could never suicide
or else suffer the pits of Hell,
nor had she the courage to sail
away from that foreign soil
of heathen gods and tiresome toil.
A heathen son she bore in time
who was like that coldly clime,
having eyes like ice, hoarfrost hair,
and her own cool, judgmental stare.
Scornful of Trembling in the cold,
he said she was ugly and old
and foolish to pray to that which
was deaf, feckless, an inert lich.
Trembling tried to teach him her creed,
but like the dregs of an old mead
he poured it out from his spirit,
choosing never to revere it,
esteeming, instead, wise Odin
and thunderous Thor, beholden
to the ways of his father’s clan,
spurning that feeble, beaten man
she loved as her Lord and Savior
who would never be of the Aesir.
And so, unloved by lord and Lord,
Trembling trembled among the Nord
from fear, from chill, from yearning wants
of her creed, and the pagan taunts
till the day she was at last laid
into the earth, a tomb thus paid
by grueling years and countless woes
that packed together, like the snows.
Just as Fair was no longer fair
and Dark not dark, nor anywhere,
so, too, Trembling trembled no more
upon that icy, foreign shore.

Thus the sisters three came to end,
blessed with curses that could not mend,
all lovely in ways exceeding rare
like flowers plucked to perfume air,
born beneath the old willow tree
that wept evermore for the three
as they were bound, as like the withes
of willows, their Wyrd-woven lives
bending back to their cursed names
to satisfy Fate’s cruel games.

High Ambitions

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Maggie Greene walked through the school’s lobby, bold as hot molasses on cold grits. Many of the students were waiting in that old, dusty lobby, lingering outside their classroom doors until the clock struck 8:19. There were no warning bells in the Clayton Elementary school. It was an old tottering edifice that once housed nuns before they moved on to a bigger, and more lucrative, county. The clocks barely ran on time, if they ran at all.
Maggie stood, whereas the other students outside of Mrs. Clarke’s classroom sat, looking defeated by the clock and by the dread of another school day. It was Spring and many of them had grass and scuff and mud and manure on their boots. They all longed for Summer, even if it meant hard work for long hours on the farm.
“You got a shine today,” Laura remarked to Maggie.
“Summer’s comin’ up soon,” Maggie said. “And I’m gonna’ have the loveliest flowers in the whole county.”
“How’s that?” Laura asked.
“The fairies promised me I would,” Maggie said. Absently, she tucked a stray blonde hair behind her ear.
“Fairies?” Laura said. “You’re not talkin’ right.”
“I’m tellin’ you they said so,” Maggie said. “And the fairies keep their promises.”
By now several other students waiting by Mrs. Clarke’s classroom were listening intently to Maggie, and raising their own objections.
“You must of got kicked in the head by a cow,” Tommy Peterson said. “There ain’t no such thing as fairies.”
“There are, too,” Maggie said, looking with disgust at Tommy as he picked his nose. “They have wings and they fly around your head like horseflies. Only they don’t bite. They talk to you and tell you things.”
“You’re talkin’ about angels,” Brittany Blanford said, authoritatively. “Angels have wings and tell you things. They even save your life, if you’ve got a good soul. My momma says so.”
Maggie stood solidly in her belief, and no one could rock her with his or her opinion, even as more and more students gathered round to listen to her and to doubt her and question her.
“You wait and see,” she said. “I’m gonna’ have the loveliest flowers in all the county. It ain’t that hard, anyhow.  You just gotta’ get down in the dirt to grow good flowers. You got to use the right fertilizer. The flowers will do the rest of the work.”
The students were so caught up in Maggie’s talk that they failed to enter their classes at 8:20. Mrs. Clarke came out to fetch them, and to berate them.
“You children are supposed to have more sense than this,” she said, gesturing them inside as if she was corralling calves into a pen with her brawny arms. “Get on, now. We got your arithmetic to work on.”
“I won’t need to know no more,” Maggie boldly declared, the last to enter the class. “The fairies promised I am goin’ to grow the loveliest flowers in the whole county.”
Mrs. Clarke rolled her eyes. “Stop your nonsense, Miss Greene, and get on in there.”

***

At recess Maggie’s class went outside to play. There wasn’t much of a playground— only a field behind the old schoolhouse, or nunnery hall, and a few things to play with. Jump ropes. Kickballs. The grass was not maintained and grew riot to the knee. Wildflowers grew there, too, and many girls simply spent recess trying to outdo one another’s bouquets. Maggie normally tried, also, but saw no sense in it now.
“My flowers will be the loveliest in Clayton county,” she said while the other girls picked dandelions and phlox and whatever else they could find. “The fairies said so.”
The other girls scowled at her as they stooped and plucked at the stems. The sky was overcast above. Boys shouted and laughed and cried nearby, playing dodgeball or climbing trees at the border of the field.
“It ain’t so hard, really,” Maggie said, walking around with her nose held high. She looked like a prancing doe in a field of clover, too happy to notice the coyote sneers of her peers. “The earth’s got to settle just right,” she continued to say. “But you can’t be too upset about the outcome, otherwise you won’t appreciate what good all of your hard work’s done. Not every seed’s gotta’ grow up big. Sometimes it takes the smaller ones to let the bigger ones shine.”
“You talk all nonsense,” Laura said, plopping down in the grass. She was a tomboy, and so wore jeans instead of a dress like the rest of the girls. “You don’t know the first thing about growing flowers. You’re a do-nothin’ princess. You don’t like to work.”
Maggie’s smile did not falter even a moment. “But I won’t have to do nothin’ to grow my flowers,” she said. “The fairies said so. The flowers will do the growin’ for me.”
“And what kind of flowers are those?” Brittany Blanford demanded.
“Every kind of flower,” Maggie said. “Daisies and petunias and lilies and tulips and lilac. I am even going to grow orchids. The fairies promised.”
“Orchids don’t grow around here,” Brittany said. “My momma’s tried for a long time, but they never do right.”
“Your momma never had fairies promise her nothin’,” Maggie said. She was about to say more, but then she saw Billy Throne approaching. Maggie hated Billy Thorne. He was always teasing her and pulling her hair and slugging her arm and giving her kisses on her cheek. He had a fancy for her, and she had a disgust for him.
“What’s this I hear about you growin’ flowers?” he said, crossing his arms.
“Fairies said I will,” Maggie said, full of sass with her hands on her hips. “Loveliest flowers in the county.”
“You don’t know nothin’ about growin’ flowers,” he said. “You couldn’t even grow weeds.”
“Don’t matter what you say,” she said. “Fairies said I could. It’s the most natural thing to do.”
“Well,” he said with a grin, “I guess if that’s true then they’d be good for the wedding.”
“What wedding?” Maggie said, confused.
Our wedding,” he said. “You and I are gettin’ married.”
Maggie snorted. “That ain’t ever gonna’ happen. I got my flowers to grow. Nothing else matters.”
“We’ll see about that,” Billy said, grinning as he walked away.
“He ain’t ever gonna’ be my prince,” Maggie announced resolutely.

***

The schoolday passed slowly, as it always had done for the children in Clayton County Elementary. Eventually the time for studies was done, though, and the school let out. Maggie was happy and satisfied as she rode the bus home, staring out the window at the blooming fields of corn and wheat and wildflowers passing by.
“It’s a good time to start growing flowers,” she said. “The fairies said so.”
Maggie arrived home. Like the other Clayton county children, she lived on a farm. Her daddy was on his tractor, tilling a field so he could plant carrots and broccoli. He waved at her from among the drifting dust. She waved back.
Maggie met her mother in the kitchen. She was preparing that evening’s supper: cooking beans and biscuits and bacon and peas. She was stirring the beans in a pot.
“See to your chores, Maggie,” her mother said.
“They don’t matter anymore,” Maggie said. “The fairies said so.”
Her mother took instant umbrage. “Now you know better than to sass me, Margaret Greene. You are gonna’ do your chores or your daddy’s gonna’ tan your hide.”
“But the fairies said it doesn’t matter anymore!” Maggie said, wrenching her hands as if to grasp the reason that was so obvious to her and make it visible for her mother. “Nothin’ else matters except me havin’ the loveliest flowers in all of Clayton county.”
Her mother shook her head slowly, ruefully, wrath written all over her sun-stained face. It was a face that had not smiled often in its whole life, and the mind behind it had had all childish thoughts and habits burned out of it with hard work and hard luck and hard labor out in the fields.
Maggie’s father came into the kitchen just then. His hair was soaked with sweat under his hat and his blue eyes gazed from faraway, as they always did when he had been working in the heat too long and he needed some cool shade, a nice chair, and a glass of lemonade. His wife brought him the latter as he sat down at the table and fanned himself with his hat. His hair was going white prematurely with work. After he had drank enough, and sighed enough, he grinned at the two most important women in his life.
“Now what’s all this arguin’ about?” he said lightly.
“Your daughter’s refusin’ to do her chores,” his wife said, pointing the bean spoon at Maggie. “And she’s gettin’ mighty high about it!”
“Is that so?” he said. He squinted at his daughter, taking the full measure of her. “But I’d say she hasn’t gotten too high. She’s still pretty short yet.”
Maggie laughed and her mother scowled.
“Joe,” his wife warned, “you need to take this seriously. Half of her problem is that you indulge her too much. My daddy would have belted me good just for speaking out of turn.”
“I know, Patty,” he said, “but your daddy was also one mean son of a bitch.” His smile slipped sideways. “Maggie, don’t repeat that.”
“I know not to, daddy,” Maggie said obediently.
“It’s not bein’ mean to discipline your daughter,” Patty said. “Life is mean, Joe, and if we don’t let her know it she won’t be ready for it. She’s gettin’ all sorts of silly notions in her head. Fairies and flowers? Life ain’t fairies and flowers!”
“The fairies are real!” Maggie said. “And my flowers will be the loveliest in all of Clayton county!”
Her mother was apoplectic with fury; she looked ready to smash the bean pot on the floor. Maggie’s father just chuckled lightly, then sighed.
“Those sound like some mighty high ambitions,” he remarked. He motioned for her to come sit on his knee. Maggie did so happily, for she was a daddy’s girl through and through. “How’d you get such mighty high ambitions into your head?”
“Because nothin’ pretty grows around here,” she said, looking sideways at her mother. “Momma even says so. But the fairies say it’s the easiest, naturalist thing in the world to do.”
“Nothin’ was ever done easily that was worth doin’,” her mother said. “And nothin’ worth doin’ was ever done to be pretty. That’s why flower gardenin’ is a waste of time, Maggie. All that soil and toil ought to be used growin’ useful things, like squash and radishes. Things that keep you from starvin’.”
“I won’t have to worry about starvin’ no more while I’m growin’ my flowers,” Maggie said.
Mother and daughter glowered at one another for a long silent moment. The dust motes swirling around the light through the kitchen window even seemed to feel the tension in the air, for they were sluggish with caution. At length, Maggie’s father spoke, breaking the silence.
“Go on outside, darlin’,” he said. “Your momma and I need to talk.”
Maggie hopped off of his lap and headed down the hall, toward the front door.
“And do your chores!” her mother called after her. She returned to stirring the pot of beans, and stirring her anger at her husband for the proper flavor. She began berating him before Maggie opened the door. “Damn it, Joe, you’re gonna’ ruin her! They already call her princess in church. What’s next? Queen? Her imaginary friends were embarrassing enough, but now she’s goin’ on and on about fairies! It’s that damn fairytale book you got for her.”
“Hey now,” her husband said calmly. “It’s good for her to be readin’. Maybe she’ll be able to get a better job with her readin’ than either of us could have.”
“Oh yeah,” his wife said. “‘Princess of the fairies’ sounds like a great job…”

Maggie left the house. She did not do her chores. Instead, she went directly into the woods. She knew the way by heart. She had been shirking her chores on the farm for weeks and coming to the glade to see the fairies in their ring of toadstools. If she had been sleepwalking or blind she would have known the way.
The fairies greeted her with enthusiastic laughter, flitting around her gaily. Their diaphanous wings sparkled in the scant rays of the sun that punctured intermittently the dense foliage and penumbral shadows. Their bodies were the colors of all kinds of flowers: tulips, daisies, lilies, roses, bluebells. Nearby a tree stood that was different from the oaks and ashes and elms. Red berries hung from it like jewels from the gown of a princess. Only birds could eat them, but many had been plucked.
“Is it time?” Maggie asked the fairies.
The little creatures nodded eagerly, every one of them grinning with mischief. Their grins glistened and their bodies glittered. Many of them were quite small, so it took several of them to carry the wooden cup to Maggie. They were not coordinated well, and the sour red liquid sloshed and spilled here and there. Maggie took the cup carefully from them. They all hovered around her, smiling in expectation.
“So I drink this and I can have the loveliest flowers in all of Clayton county?”
They nodded wildly, glancing sidelong with amusement at one another.
Maggie lifted the cup and drank it dry.

***

Maggie’s father found her just before suppertime. He scooped her up and ran to the house, sobbing and praying to Jesus to return color to her pale cheeks. She was announced dead at the hospital. They buried her in the Clayton Catholic Church graveyard the following Sunday.
It was said that the loveliest flowers grew up from her burial plot, but they all looked like weeds to those who loved her.

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Disenchantment

mound

Little Erin made her way
down to that idyll isle
in the lake where druids pray;
her head sore all the while.

(Hey nonny, nonny,
nonsense and bonny.)

Her father had been drinking again
and took umbrage at her girlish songs,
so he struck her on her chin
with a fist writ with wrongs.

(All sobby hobby,
head knotted and knobby.)

Erin’s mother had been pretty
and had a voice without equal,
both fair and clever and witty,
and Erin hoped to be her sequel.

(Still a silly filly
all wild and willy-nilly.)

She had told Erin many fanciful stories
about knights bold and maidens fair,
crowning her head with these glories
of when magic reigned everywhere.

(Hey jabber-gabber,
you’re a fabulous yabber.)

Erin’s mother had died only a year since
from a cold caught from a chill breeze
and her husband had from then hence
drank himself vicious on various brandies.

(A handy man, he, yet, fie,
randy as a bitter brandy.)

Eager for escape, Erin went to the lake
and docked in the rocks, upon the isle,
tying the boat to an old oak stake,
singing her favorite song all the while.

(Do you dillydally
in my lake-view valley?)

It was a song about the fairy kin
that her mother used to sing,
telling of a magical portal within
the mound in the standing stone ring.

(Will you still be wild,
stolen changeling child?)

A mist breathed up from the water
as the sky darkened in the South
and, singing still, Erin sought her
dreams within that mound’s mouth.

(Winsome with want and whim,
dreams always dim.)

She crawled on her hands and knees
and thought she could hear the sound
of feet within the maze, as if to tease
her to crawl even faster into the mound.

(Fit and flit as a fiddlestick
that bit at a wick not one whit.)

How lovely, she thought, to dance
with the fairy people in their balls,
and how nice it would be, perchance,
to dine with them in their banquet halls.

(Dance and dine, what is mine is thine,
food and drink and song so long and fine.)

But the fairies did not greet her
as she crawled into the central room;
only rats circled to meet her
as her hand grasped something in that gloom.

(Ages old, slick and cold,
unseen, unclean, but of a familiar mold.)

It was long and smooth, like a scepter,
and Erin naturally assumed it to belong
to the queen of the fairies who kept her
followers hidden in the shadowy throng.

(What a lark in the dark—
merrily as unto a park.)

An oculus let in the darkening daylight,
funneling it into the heart of the mound,
and by its rays she took sudden fright
at the thigh bone she had found.

(Once delightful, now quite frightful,
the columnar light full of the spiteful.)

There were bones here and there scattered
in that rat-swarmed, chthonic place,
and Erin’s own bones chattered
as she saw the truth of the fairy race.

(The kin of men, faintly simian,
therein buried from way back when.)

Dropping the bone, Erin wondered
if any of the old stories were true,
thinking, as the storm above her thundered,
that there was nary a darker view.

(Alas O ill lil’ lass,
all this, too, will pass.)

No Regrets

It was normal for Katy to see mice and rats in the subway as she waited for the train. They gathered here every morning, more punctually than Katy had ever been, and scrambling for scraps and throwaway trash to add to their smorgasbord breakfast. What was not normal that morning were the toads and frogs strewn out all across the subway platform.
If New York wanted to be weird, she thought, let it be weird. She was of no mind to question it. Last night had been terrible and she was in a foul mood. Breakups always ruined the next day—or week, or year, depending upon the person and the circumstances. Peter wasn’t worth more than a morning of regret, on the other hand, since he had been so petty and manipulative, and so she had decided to waste only a little of the morning finding closure and peace— not with the ending of the relationship, but the beginning of it. She never should have dated him. It was a mistake from the start. It was a waste of three months. Had he not been so handsome she wouldn’t have wasted more than three hours on him. But he was handsome, like a prince, and she leapt at the chance to date him that night when he casually asked her out to dinner. Now she was ready for some time alone. Now she was ready for some me time.
Only, these frogs and toads were annoyingly everywhere. She gingerly stepped between them as she crossed the platform to board the newly arrived train. Inside, she found them all over the floor, the seats, and the windows. Small frogs. Huge frogs. Tiny toads. Fat toads. Toads that bulged like ugly purses. Tree frogs as lean and green as plant stems while they crouched on whatever nooks they could find. More surprising than these unlikely invaders were the reactions of Katy’s fellow passengers. Or, as it were, their lack of reactions. They glanced over them seemingly without seeing them. They sat on toad and frog alike without compunction. Not one twenty-something took pictures of the creatures with his or her phone— they didn’t even feel the urge to take selfies with them.
The train stopped and Katy stepped off.  She was met by another subway platform sprawling with frogs and toads. Once again she stepped mindfully between them, and her fellow New Yorkers— which was a bit awkward in stilettos—and she came to the rise of stairs, following them up and out into daylight once again, or as much daylight that could be had between the skyscrapers. She glanced up at a digital clock on the side of a bank and realized she was almost late. Hurrying across three blocks, she came to the office building where she worked. Here, too, the frogs and toads were strewn everywhere, but much worse in their numbers than anywhere else. Walking into the lobby, she saw several coworkers at the coffee stand, and all of them had frogs and toads clinging to their shoes and pants and skirts. Instead of being bothered by their stowaways, they all seemed instead to be bothered by Katy herself. They gave her odd looks as she walked by them. Women turned and whispered to one another. Men elbowed each other and grinned. Katy feared she was having a mental breakdown. Stubbornly, she fixed her brown eyes upon the floor, taking deep breaths and heading straight to the elevator. To her surprise, and relief, no one joined her in the elevator on the way up. When the elevator stopped at the next few floors, would-be passengers stepped forward, recognized her, and then stepped out.
“I’ll catch the next one,” they said.
Katy did not understand any of it.
Feeling lonely and vulnerable, and since she had time, Katy checked her phone. She had silenced it after her alarm clock went off that morning. There were several missed calls from her friend, Ashley, and from her mother. She thought to call them back, but by now the frogs and toads were multiplying exponentially within the elevator. She could not see where they were coming from, and their slimy bodies crowded around her, an acute claustrophobia overtaking her. When the elevator doors finally slid open, at the eighth floor, she nearly fell trying to escape it.
Angela happened by as Katy stumbled toward her cubicle.
“Good girl’s not so good after all,” she said with a haughty, knowing smirk. Frogs clung to her ears and hair. A tiny frog— not even the size of a fingernail—dangled from her nostril.
Feeling off-balanced and disturbed, Katy tried to ignore her. Angela always had been a conceited, petty diva.
Furtive glances followed her from around every cubicle partition, and with them came an abundance of frogs and toads. Katy arrived at her cubicle after an obstacle course of croaking, chirping, stinking amphibians. Her cubicle was overrun, too. Some of the little beasts were trying to mate with others, forming big clusters of obscenity that rose and collapsed in columns all over her desk. Dismayed, she could do nothing but gawp at it for a moment, wondering if she had suffered an aneurysm or had accidentally ingested LSD on the way to work. Just then, her supervisor, Dave, approached her.
“Katy,” he said, “I know you didn’t mean to do it, but it is a strict company guideline that anything posted on your social media accounts can impact negatively on your continued employment…”
Katy turned to face him, confused as to what he was talking about. A large fat toad squatted atop his head, hunkering down in the bald circle of his pate.
“The terms are severe, I know,” he was saying. “Harsh, even, and I know this is your one and only infraction, so I am going to try to contain it, if I can, and see if we can work out a deal with HR for a minor suspension— without pay, of course— but then you could be relocated into another position at a different firm.” The old man blushed bright red, and would not look at her. “You know, so it won’t be so embarrassing for you or your coworkers…”
“I don’t feel so good,” she said, interrupting him. “I need to go home.”
Dave nodded fervently, as did the fat toad on his head. “Yes, yes! That would be best. But only until we figure this out! Don’t worry about it. It’ll be water under the bridge in no time.”
The toad and frogs followed Katy home to her apartment. All along the way she came across more of them, which only swelled the ranks around her. Peter was waiting for her, his mouth wide with an amphibious smirk.
“I showed everybody that was on your accounts,” he said. “Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr. Pics and video and gifs. I showed everybody everything.”
Katy just looked down at him as he squatted in front of her door. He had expelled so many frogs and toads now that he was little more than a tiny creature himself. How, she wondered, could such a small creature gloat so expansively?
“I told you it wouldn’t be happily ever after if you broke up with me,” he croaked up at her. “I told you you’d regret it”
“Maybe,” she said. “But I won’t regret this.”
She squashed the prince beneath her stiletto heel.