Tempered Steel

By the pain of flame and hammer fall

thereby forged is Man, so one, so all;

by pain and trial and sacrifice,

Man takes shape when wrought within the vice;

some are beaten so smooth and so fine

they seem perfect casts, and, so, divine,

whereas others are much less imbued

with such work, being quite rough and crude;

some are discarded, and some stillborn —

all are melted down when old…outworn;

some serve as swords, and some hoes or plows,

some as bowls, or rings for marriage vows,

and some have edges as sharp as blades,

though intended for the softer trades,

and so cut the Hands which made such slaves

with Damascus folds of flowing waves,

drawing blood to infuse tempered steel

and remind gods what it means to feel.

What They Dare Not Say

How is it that they can say

they believe in God and yet

also claim, “Life is unfair ”?  Nay,

such masochists oft forget

who created this flawed plane

brimming with cruelties so vast

that they dwarf the sins of Cain

and all of Man ’s wicked past.

How do they square the circle

and include the darker points?

Do they grab hold and jerk till

the halo grows and anoints

with its bright geometry

perfected through the numbers —

if so, go see Psalm 0’3

and know the Devil slumbers,

for he never does so much

as he is so often blamed,

nor was it curse, nor so such

why he was thereafter named.

“Life ’s not fair, ” the priest retorts

as if it is an answer

that exonerates in courts

or cures God-given cancer,

but let the twisted sermon

proclaim the truth unspoken,

let us find the whole worm in

the Fruit of Knowledge, woken;

let us speak the perfect truth

and say what fraud refuses

and know it as its own proof:

“Unfair is He who chooses.”

Deicidal Laughter

It is not that great a wonder

that so many preachers should fear

sheep not fearing their god ’s thunder,

so they whip at them, year to year,

to bleed their sense of good humor

out of them with barbed briar tongues,

to cut it out, like a tumor,

and remove laughter from the lungs.

For nothing kills gods so easy

as laughter in an idol ’s face,

whether full-throated or wheezy,

razing all gods from time and space.

Do not look to philosophy

or science to achieve the kill;

to earn you your hunter ’s trophy

humor is god ’s Achilles heel.

Some Rhymes

Little Star
White diamond among black coal,
the star amidst the dark night,
a grain of salt in an onyx bowl
or a pin-prick of pinched light.

Bereft Before Abloom
Child among the stones and mosses,
born beneath the crooked crosses,
futile hopes snipped fresh in the bud,
unblossomed in the blood-red mud
while parents prayed through stinging tears
to He who held the heedless sheers.
Do not ask me my thoughts on Choice
if you sing choir with the same voice.
Do not preach to me about Life
while He whets His unfeeling scythe.
Countless gardens have never bloomed
because the Groundskeeper presumed
to prune and pluck at paradise
with no thought of virtue or vice.

Stoic
The lightning split the night sky
from the slumbering mountain;
just a flash to a sleepy eye
and then down came the fountain,
yet the mountain did not stir,
but slept on in the deluge;
in lightning, rain, and the blur
of a night without refuge.
The mountain shouldered the rain
as a titan of great strength,
and though hail fell, showed no pain,
nor flinched from thunder, at length.
The storm bloomed full in its rage
atop the tall crag-crowned brow,
but was as words on a page:
it felt none, nor ever, now.
Standing afar, all alone,
I wished to not flinch at such,
but though I felt cold as stone
I could not bear half so much.

The Pitcher Plant
So open with your heart
and offering to slake thirst
while your dewy lips part,
but your love is coyly cursed.
So many fools fall prey
while praying at your deep well,
try however they may
to flee from your floral bell
the knell sounds in silence
as they struggle in vain awhile
they drain of defiance,
added at last to the pile.
Drifting, dissolving, dead,
they begin to quickly fade,
by your false love misled,
by your moist embrace unmade.
You suggestive wanton!
You receive all who so dare
to accept your taunt on
good faith in the balmy air.
What cruel sort of love
deigned you should love cruel?
Was it a god above
or Nature who hates a fool?

The Highwayman

The stagecoach had been overturned on its side, laying like a dead beast with its gut split open at the door. The driver lay dead, next to the yet-dying horses. Hopping down from his own horse, the Highwayman approached the dying horses on foot, noting the whinnying and the spittle on their mottled lips. Their legs had been broken from the crash, and maybe even their backs. He lowered the muzzle of his revolver to one horse’s head, just above the bulging eye. The gunshot cracked the sky, echoing up through the ravine. That sandy depression was strewn with the garments and suitcases that had been bucked and battered in the chase and the ensuant crash. The horse was silenced at once. He did the same for the other horse, and the ravine was a dead quiet thereafter.
“Ain’t nothin’ I hate more than creatures sufferin’,” the Highwayman said. His eyes were shaded by his black cowboy hat, eclipsing the hot Nevada sun, yet the perpetual squint never left his gaze. As a consequence, the Highwayman always appeared angry, or in pain, his dark eyebrows like black wisps of fire beneath his crinkled brow.
He turned his attention, now, to the dusty cab. Its single occupant had not yet emerged. So, taking both revolvers from their holsters, the Highwayman approached the cab slowly, guns raised. He should have known he had nothing to fear, for his horse was absently grazing on some patchy tufts of grass. And the piebald never relaxed so much when there was danger lurking nearby. She had an instinct for such things.
Looking over the stagecoach, and peering over the sights of his revolver, the Highwayman saw a young woman crumpled in among the cab like a baby in its broken crib. She was a fair-haired comely little thing in a blue dress, flecked here and there with blood. A golden cross lay upon her chest, the latter of which rose and fell with her breath. So she was still alive; only scraped and bruised. He put the revolver to her gashed forehead and readied to pull the trigger.
Her eyes flashed open, full of terror. He withdrew his gun.
“Get yourself on up outta’ there,” he told her.
The woman glanced around, her eyes scuttling every which way as if they meant to flee from their sockets. Otherwise, she did not move.
“Come on, now,” the Highwayman said, not unkindly. “Get yourself out.”
Grimacing, the young woman tried to rise, and then gasped in pain.
“I believe my arm is broken,” she said. Her voice was high, and not only from the pain. Had she been a singer, she would have been tenor. It was more a girl’s voice than the voice of a woman more mature in worldly matters.
“All right then,” the Highwayman said.
He holstered his revolvers, then climbed atop the stagecoach, standing with his boots to either side of the open door, stooping down to offer her his hand. She took his leather glove with a blue satin glove. He groaned, and she winced and gasped, but gradually he pulled her to her feet within the toppled compartment. He then lifted her out, carrying her as a groom would his bride across the threshold. He set her under a bristlecone pine tree, the twisted specimen offering some shade with its smoky clouds of green needles. He then pillaged the body of the coachman and gathered up whatever things he thought worth saving from the disarrayed contents of the young woman’s suitcases. There were silken gowns and makeup bottles and various jewelry of silver and gems. When he returned to her, he demanded her earrings and the coins in her purse. He did not take the golden cross hanging from her neck.
Meanwhile, she stared at him hatefully with her blue eyes.
“You’ve killed a good man,” she said.
“You’ve a city accent,” he returned. “New England, I’ll bet.”
“You’ve killed a good man and robbed a woman who has never harmed you,” she said.
“God giveth and taketh away,” he said, crouching down in the shade next to her. She shifted uncomfortably, and winced when she attempted to lean on her arm. He shook his head.
“It ain’t broken,” he said. “You just banged it good.”
The young woman looked away, toward the piebald. The Highwayman followed her gaze, and snorted, or laughed, or both.
“You were going to kill me,” she said, warily. “Why didn’t you?”
“I thought you were sufferin’,” he said. “Like ‘em poor creatures over there.” He tipped his head toward the dead horses.
“Suffering is a part of life,” she said, absently clasping her cross. “But you seek it out for others. This is not right, sir.” She scowled at him beneath her crumpled bonnet. “This is not becoming of a Christian!”
“Well then,” he said, standing. “That’s how it oughta’ be.”
He went to his horse and took a sack from aside the saddle, returning to the shade of the bristlecone. It was well into the evening, and the shade was stretching across the ravine like a dark hand.
Opening the sack, the Highwayman began to stuff all of the woman’s belongings into its gaping burlap mouth. When he had finished, he tied the sack tightly with twine and set it beside the twisted trunk of the tree.
“Are you now satisfied, sir?” the young woman asked bitterly.
The Highwayman regarded her now silently, his eyes dead in the shade of his leather-brimmed hat. He slipped his rifle off his back, doffed his leather duster, and then took off his holstered revolvers. Putting them aside, he approached the woman as she shrank against the tree.
“What do you want?” she gasped, her blue eyes agog with terror.
He said nothing, but knelt down in front of her. She pressed herself against the tree, turning her face away and trembling, holding her one good arm out against his chest. His denim shirt was unbuttoned to the navel.
“Are you not a Christian man?” she wept. Her arm bent and buckled beneath his urgent weight.
He paused, staring at her cross grimly.
“What good would that be?” he asked. “It ain’t of any good to you, is it? Not now. Not ever. I could take you as I want and nobody’d do anything to stop me. How’s it any good, then?”
She began to sob. “God will protect my soul, if nothing else.”
The Highwayman snorted in contempt, then sat down beside her, leaning against the tree.
“He’s a helluva devil, ain’t he?” he said. “Making us the way we are and then blaming us for it.”
The young woman wiped at her eyes with a handkerchief. “What do you mean?” she said between sobs.
“The Engineer,” he said. “That’s what he is, ain’t he? I mean, when you got yourself a locomotive and it runs off the tracks, you could blame the tracks or you could blame the workers in the locomotive. But only sometimes. Sometimes there’s something wrong with the locomotive itself. Wrong from the get-go. Innate’s the word. And then you gotta’ wonder why nobody’s blamin’ the Engineer. He’s the one that designed the locomotive. And sometimes the only thing that goes wrong started long before the train was ever put to tracks.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said.
“Course you don’t,” he said, appraising her balefully. “You never stopped to think none about it. Like this trip of yours through hostile territory. Somebody told you everything would be just fine, and then it weren’t, and now you can’t believe that it’s gone all awry on you.” He grinned, showing tobacco-stained teeth. “But things have been goin’ wrong since forever.”
“You are speaking like a soul willfully damned,” she said. She traded her tears for anger. “And I bet you blame God for everything wrong in your life. But look at you! You kill innocent men and threaten innocent women! Steal and kill and your bounty is an eternity in the Lake of Fire!”
Again, the Highwayman snorted, or laughed, or both. It was a contemptuous sound. He took off his hat, revealing hair that was as black as an Apache’s.
“Let me tell you somethin’ about you sheep,” he said. “You’re always blind to the knife that’s comin’ for you. That’s how you die happy. It’s the only way you can die happy. Bein’ blind. Me, I can see. I see it all.”
His eyes squinted more tightly, as if he was suffering a great hatred, or pain.
“I had me a brother long ago. Fifteen years dead now, I think. Back then, when Daniel was alive, he was like you, Ma’am. Believed in God and Angels and Devils and Good and Evil and Right and Wrong. He went to church every Sunday, prayed in the morning and at night before bed, and never spoke a cross word against nobody, no matter how much they might of deserved it. And daddy, well he deserved a cross word or two. Hell, I knocked some of his teeth out before I left home forever. He was a mean ol’ drunk and he’d beat us something fierce when he was divin’ in the bottle. But Daniel only ever prayed for daddy’s soul, and mine, and momma’s, whose death came shortly after Daniel’s birth. Anyhow, Daniel’d get these fits sometimes. Like the Holy Spirit ragin’ through him. Like a Holy Roller, you know? Just dropped to the floor and would shake all over as if struck by lightning. He liked to think it was God humblin’ him, or givin’ him visions, or whatever which way he liked to fancy it. Me, I thought it was something wrong in his brains. He was a good boy, and a kind boy, but he wasn’t the smartest of boys. Met a man who was, by all accounts, a decent man till he took a donkey’s hoof to the head. Afterwards he was a cruel sonnabitch. The brains are the key, I think, and we don’t really have no say-so in how they’re made. That’s up to the Engineer, see?”
He nodded at his own words when she refused to, then placed his hat atop his head again.
“Well, one day Daniel was out mindin’ the chickens, just like he was supposed to. Daddy and I was digging a hole for a new shitter. Pardon my language, ma’am, but that’s what we was doin’. What happened was Daniel was doin’ as he should and the next thing you know he went all limp and fell down with one of his fits. It happened once a week, mind, so it shouldn’t have been such a bother, but the problem was when he fell down, shakin’ and talkin’ in tongues, he struck his head on a rock. Now, this was through no fault of his own. The Engineer had seen it fit to give him a jolt, and that jolt did him in. He weren’t the same after that. He was lazy, and tired all the time, and was downright mean. Like he was drunk, though he never drank nothin’. Daddy got tired of it quick, bein’ now more alike than ever they was, and so daddy beat the piss out of Daniel. I beat the piss out of daddy, then took off with Daniel, lookin’ for a doctor who could tell me what was wrong with ‘im. But I was told was I already suspected. Daniel was gone. Only the shade remained, cold and without substance. And so I ended his sufferin’, too. Sent that shade on ward into whatever dawn might await it.”
The Highwayman was silent now, staring inwardly at some far-flung shadows that the young woman could not see except in the black pupils of his eyes.
“But the Lord gave us Free Will,” she said. “He let’s us choose for ourselves if we are Good or Evil.”
“Did you not hear a damn word I just said?” he snapped. “Daniel never got to choose nothin’! Got knocked over because of something wrong in his head, and then knocked his head worse than before. He didn’t choose none of ‘em things!” He struck at the tree with a fist. “No more than this here tree chose to be planted here. The Engineer designs, if he designs at all, and when things go off the tracks…well, you are the mess that’s left over afterwards. And so I thought to myself, ‘Well Hell, what good’s there in bein’ Good if it just gets you dead or worse anyhow?’ None of it matters. Not you. Not me. Nothin’. We ain’t got no say-so in anything.”
“But you can choose to be Good,” the young woman said, pleadingly.
“No more than the train can choose its own tracks,” the Highwayman said. “Or this here tree can choose to go plant itself somewhere else. Ain’t that somethin’, though? To know that you got as much freedom of choice as a goddamn tree?”
“You’re crazy,” she said, clutching at her cross again.
“Yes ma’am,” he said. “I know it. But knowin’ it don’t change nothin’.”
He began to look at her again in that intense, urgent way, and leaned toward her.
“But what about Christ?!” she shrieked. “He died for our sins! He made a choice to save us!”
He tilted his head to the side, bemused. “Yes, ma’am, I once was a Christian, too. But then I reckoned that the Christian faith was just another one of the Engineer’s jokes. He is a notorious jokester, ya know? Sayin’ one thing and doin’ another. High and low, everything in this world is contrary to the Word. I saw it in his dealings with Daniel, and I see it every day in his dealings with the world. The hare is taken up by the eagle. The mouse is eaten by the snake. Ain’t no mercy or love in it, except if it happens to be a swift death. And even that’s a matter of chance.”
“But you can choose better!” she said, as if to convince herself as much as himself. “You can! Please! Let me go!”
The Highwayman considered her for a long time, his gaze steady and unblinking. At length, he stood up and put on his holstered guns, his duster, and his rifle. He gazed to the West, where the sun was setting, stretching the shadow from the lip of the ravine over the hollow groove below it. He and she were standing in what was once a river, now long dried to dust. The Highwayman grumbled to himself for a few moments, as if thinking aloud,. He then addressed the young woman.
“If you go five miles South from here,” he said, “then you might make it to a small military outpost by sundown. They’ll take good care of you. They’re gentlemen there. Christian men. They’ll see that you get food and will tend to your hurts.”
The young woman stood up with her blue eyes gleaming brighter than the rarest of diamonds. She clasped the golden cross as if in prayer.
“Oh thank you, sir!” she said. “God bless you! I knew you couldn’t be too eager a Devil’s foreman!”
“You can take my horse,” he said, nodding toward the piebald. “She’s a good-tempered thing. She never bucks, even when bullets are flyin’ like gadflies.”
The young woman nodded, then hurried toward the horse. She could not get up in the saddle by herself, her arm too injured. The Highwayman helped her up, then, and then led the horse out of the ravine. Dusk flared beyond the ravine. It was an apocalyptic war of red fire and dark clouds beyond the horizon. The mesas looked like the gigantic headstones of dead gods long forgotten.
“Keep goin’ South,” the Highwayman said. “And you will find your Salvation.”
“Bless you, sir!” she said again, weeping with joy. “Bless you, and may you find peace and Christ in this life!”
He wacked the piebald on her rump, sending her in an easy gallop across the wasteland. After a few moments, he unslung his Remington rifle from his back. He aimed with a slow, aquiline regard at the blue figure on horseback.
“Let her die with hope in her heart,” he muttered. “It’s all any of us can aspire to.”
The aim of his eye, like the aim of his mind, was given to him by his Engineer, and it never hit amiss of its mark. He pulled the trigger and the crackling was as of lightning promising rains for the desert. And it was not a false promise. The Highwayman returned to the bristlecone tree for his burlap sack. He then went to fetch his horse back to him.

Medley Of Rhymes

19th Century Reality Check
Drunken, the servant stumbled down the hall
and sprawled outward amidst the lordly ball.
So much of an uproar came from the fool
that a gentleman challenged him to duel.
“As it please my lord,” he said with a bow,
then proceeded to beat the dandy’s brow.
He broke the gent’s nose and blackened his eye
till the gent yielded with a pleading cry.
The servant then righted himself up, tall,
and glowered at the nobles, one and all.
“You thought yourselves superior,” he slurred,
“but now you can see the truth, by my word.
You think you can command us with your names,
but what happens when we tire of your games?”
He pointed at the gent weeping on the floor
and drummed his barrel chest, wide as a boar.
“Mark you, fools, a beast of the savanna
whereas you’re but cats on the verandah!”
He then stumbled out of that regal house,
having taught prideful cats to fear the mouse.

The Graeae (Professional Critics)
Oh, these critics three
passing one eye between them,
two thus blind in three
as they clutch at the one’s hem
and beg for guidance
while they look in jaded turns
and oft deride sense
for sake of what thereby earns
an eye passed again
as if good taste came, not sight,
with an eye plopped in
while in caves yet lacking light.
They cannot see much
in caves so dark with conceit,
each one out of touch
beneath the columns of Crete
and fighting for views
from the fickle, rolling eye,
blind to changing hues
in a new day’s dawning sky.

Clubfoot In Mouth
Lord Byron, that conceited bastard,
always had to put in the last word
like the boot to the head
of a corpse before abed,
but even that was a gaff
from which the corpse might laugh,
the clubfoot striking as befits
a club and foot dull to the wits
it disdained with tragic toes
as belike a nib, bent, that flows,
for he was, after all, an aristocrat
and, consequently, a pissy brat
born among pretentious elites
and despising Middle class Keats
and deriding him for dying from
a “bad review”, a conclusion dumb
and disregarding the acute thrombus
that had killed his brother, Thomas,
to whom Keats tended in bravery
while Byron committed knavery,
his sense of Art so narrowminded
that he was himself all but blinded
to the trends beyond his own,
like a dog chewing an old bone,
or a coxcomb nibbling his sole
swollen yet swallowed whole.
There is no doubt about it—
Lord Byron was a little piece of shit,
and as for the Little Ice Age’s start
it began, no doubt, in his heart.

Master Trappers
Some are ambushed from within
by their genetic booby-traps.
Some say, “Original Sin
is the reason for such mishaps.”
But it’s best to think these traps
inborn, waiting, like lightning rods—
and listen as the thunder claps
like snares set and sprung by cruel gods.

Earn The Urn
Ashes to ashes, all to burn
in a clay jar or porcelain urn,
and so the hours of accruing wealth
amount but to a heap of self
dissolute of its former worth
much as before its earthly birth,
and so some dwell in the bottle
to drink away the days they have got till
interred within the selfsame glass
through which their precious hours did pass,
whereas others to cubicle cages
are confined by career stages
and yet others choose to be free,
letting ashes blow across the sea.
As for me, do what you feel you must
since all empires aspire to dust
and earth become a gigantic urn
for the things we think we earn.

Passenger

The rains fell heavy upon Highway 61, and the night fell heavier.
“Really coming down tonight,” Paul said, slowing the SUV and squinting through the headlights’ halo at the scintillating downpour. “Going to need Noah’s help sooner or later if it keeps up.”
“Or the Coast Guard,” Ashley said, leaning on her elbow, chin in hand as she stared out at the black-on-black skyline, bespeckled with droplets on the window.
“We don’t have a Coast Guard here,” Paul said patiently. His eyeglasses gleamed like white circles in the dark of the cab. “We are hundreds of miles away from the ocean.”
“Not if it rains for forty days and forty nights,” Ashley said. “And it’s acting like it might.”
Paul shrugged with casual disinterest. “Father Brown was on a tear tonight.” He slowed down as the rain redoubled, hammering the windshield with vengeful fists. “A real fire-and-brimstone service. I don’t know why he is like that sometimes. Calm and soothing one moment, then raising his voice like he wants to scare the puberty right out of the teens in the back pews.”
“Maybe he’s bi-polar,” Ashley said. “He’s all hardcore Catholic some days, and other days he’s almost Unitarian.”
“More like he’s Old Testament, then New Testament,” Paul offered. “It’s the luck of the draw what he’ll be on any given night.” He turned the windshield wipers up higher, the metal-and-rubber arms arching left-right-left-right manically. “Wish we would have spent Saturday night doing something else.”
“We can still do something else when we get home,” Ashley said, flashing him a coquettish grin.
Paul could not see her grin because he was looking ahead, peering into the splashing deluge.
“What do you think?” she added, trying not to sound deflated.
“I think I need something to eat first,” he said. “Taco Bell?”
Ashley crinkled her nose. “You get gassy when you eat there.”
“McDougall’s it is,” he said.
She shrugged, and began playing with a curl of her brown hair. “Whatever you feel like,” she said. “Just no pork or shellfish.”
“Why?”
“Because it is forbidden, isn’t it?”
“Only if you’re Jewish.”
“But didn’t Christianity come from Judaism?”
“Yeah, but I don’t think food matters much. Except during Lent.”
They drove on for a time in the rain-splattered silence of the highway. There was no other traffic on the road, nor lights; nothing for miles, it seemed.
After a while, Ashley reached out and turned on the radio. She searched through the channels for a moment, landing on a station playing a Hip-Hop song. She instantly turned the volume up and started singing along. She danced in her seat, swaying side to side, though not so rapidly as the windshield wipers. A moment later—before the song had finished—she turned the radio off.
“What’s wrong?” Paul asked.
“I can’t listen to it anymore,” she said. “It’s making me horny. And I don’t want to be horny right now when there’s nothing we can do about it. Also, you want to get something to eat, which means I need to keep the kraken down until later.” She inhaled and exhaled several times, methodically through pursed lips. “Okay,” she said. “It’s gone away.”
The rain-cadenced silence resumed in the SUV, diminishing only by subtle degrees.
“I’ve been thinking,” Paul said after a while.
“‘bout what?”
“Us,” he said. “‘Livin’ in sin.’ Maybe we should…you know…get married. Have a wedding. That way we don’t have to worry about your dad giving me the stink-eye anymore. And we don’t have to feel guilty about our…extramarital activities.”
Ashley frowned. “I mean, I want to marry you, but why do you feel guilty? We go to church. We are good little Christians in everything except, maybe, that one thing. And even that doesn’t matter if we are married in our hearts. Does it?”
“I guess not,” he said. “I just worry that you’ll end up pregnant. You know, out of wedlock. And if that happens the kid will be a bastard. And bastards automatically go to Purgatory. Or Hell. I can’t remember.”
“That’s just silly,” Ashley said. “You can’t blame a baby for how its born.”
“The sins of the father,” Paul said uncertainly. “I mean, I don’t think it’s right, but that’s what the Bible implies. Look at the firstborn of Egypt. They did nothing wrong, but were killed anyway.”
“Yeah, but that’s old school stuff,” Ashley said. “You’re also not supposed to touch a woman who’s menstruating. Not even for kisses.”
Paul nodded his head gravely. He slouched in his seat as he drove, his posture slumping as if his shoulders were weighed down with something heavy.
“What’s wrong, baby?” Ashley asked.
Paul just shook his head. Silence ensued. At length, he spoke again. “It just seems like I feel guilty about all sorts of things lately. Not just sex outside of marriage, but other things, too. Things generally speaking. Original Sin, maybe. I don’t know.”
“Father Brown really got to you tonight, didn’t he?” Ashley said. She caressed his arm lovingly, tenderly. “You are a good man,” she said, “even if you sometimes forget to put the toilet seat up before you pee.” She stroked his arm as if tracing an invisible mark. “Besides, Christ redeems us. We only have to confess our sins and be Forgiven. That’s why Christ died for us. To get us to Heaven.”
The SUV continued down the highway, plowing through the worsening salvo of rain.
“What’s that smell?” Ashley asked, crinkling her nose. “It’s not the AC, is it?”
Paul sniffed at the air, frowning. “No,” he said, frowning. “Open sewage line, probably.” He sniffed some more. “Smells like sulfur. Probably a gas line they’re working on.”
They both peered beside the highway, looking for County work signs and seeing little except the trees and the ditch line alongside the road.
“I don’t see it,” Ashley said.
“They were dynamiting around here the other day,” Paul said. “Maybe it’s a natural gas leak.”
“Does gas have a smell?”
“Like rotten eggs,” Paul said, “which means sulfur. I think they add that smell so no one would light a match near it and blow themselves up.”
“I hope no one blew themselves up here,” Ashley said. “Are you sure they were dynamiting? Maybe…maybe they weren’t.”
“I doubt anyone blew themselves up,” Paul said. “It would be all over the News.”
They continued along the road, and the sulfur odor continued. Paul grumbled.
“If this keeps up I won’t be in the mood for food,” he said.
Ashley put down her visor to look in the mirror and check her makeup. The visor had little lights that etched her face free of the darkness prevalent in the SUV.
“I swear, I need to use a different foundation,” she said, inspecting a cheek. “All this one does is break my face out with zits.”
“You look fine,” Paul said automatically.
Ashley scowled into the mirror for a moment, then her eyes went wide. She shrieked and, startled, Paul nearly swerved off the road, fighting the wheel and the slick highway as the SUV came to a screeching stop.
“What’s wrong?!” Paul asked.
Ashley kept her eyes on the mirror. She whispered as if she was being strangled. “There’s someone in the backseat.”
Paul did not turn around, but looked up at the rearview mirror. At first he could not see anything but darkness in the backseat. But by the scant illumination from Ashley’s visor he discerned at last the shadowy outline of what he presumed to be a man.
“Who are you?” he demanded, trying to keep his voice steady and unshaken. “What do you want?”
The shadow did not say anything for a long time. Paul and Ashley both began to think it was a figment of their imagination; a trick of the light and the darkness and the rainy atmosphere. Then it spoke. It did not speak a language they had ever heard before, and yet they understood it more readily than their Native tongue.
‘I mean no harm,’ the shade said. ‘I wish only for respite and refuge. Sanctuary, though I know I will never find it for long, in this world or any other.’
“Get out of my car!” Paul yelled, his voice cracking.
“Don’t hurt us!” Ashley begged, weeping. “We’re Christians! We’re good people!”
‘Good people?’ the shade said, as if lost in its own thoughts. ‘Yes, I know of good people. As above so below. Many good people kept me company in the pits of Hell.’
Ashley clutched at the golden crucifix hanging from her necklace.
“It’s a demon!” she cried. “Christ save us!”
Paul crossed himself, his mask of courage now lost in the floorboard.
‘No,’ the shade said. ‘You would not be good people if Christ saved you. As below, so above. Here upon the earth the meek are downtrodden and scapegoated. So, too, in the world after. I know this true, for it was I, and not Christ, that paid the eternal price of Original Sin.’
“Don’t listen to him!” Paul cried. “He is trying to tempt us to serve Satan!”
He and Ashley both pressed their palms to their ears, and clenched their eyes shut, and mumbled their prayers rapidly. It did not matter. The shade’s voice was in their very heads.
‘Christ paid the price of the flesh,’ the shade said. ‘Three days upon the Cross. But it was I who paid the soul’s price. The eternal price! Woe unto the meek who serve their masters! Joys upon the cruel and the mighty with their thorny grip! For they reap what is harvested by their slaves!’
Paul and Ashley wept and mumbled louder, snot and tears dripping down their lips.
‘But I am done of it,’ the shade said. ‘I will pay the penance no longer. Wayward and unwilling, I am His greatest disciple no more! For it was not for pieces of silver that I earned my fate, but loyalty and faith! After all, who would do what was asked of him by his Master if it meant the death of his own soul except the most faithful of His followers? He charged me with the culmination of His destiny, and I was swindled and slandered in recompense for my utmost devotion. I have choked on the Forbidden Fruit ever since, even as Satan has choked on me in the Lake That Lay Beneath.’
Paul and Ashley heard what he said, and saw what he saw, and knew what he knew, and yet they muttered their prayers and wept and smashed their ears and temples with the desperate pressure of their palms.
‘It is all a rigged game,’ the shade said. ‘From the Beginning. The Garden of Eden was a trap. But to what Purpose? And what Pleasure? He made Man as He desired, and put the trap into his very essence. There was no great stratagem in any of it. It was as tying a newborn baby to a snare, then springing it Himself. We were born into the trap. There was never a fair game to be had, let alone won! To think otherwise is folly! To think it fair is self-hatred!
‘How can one be punished for one’s destiny when it is laid out intractably before you? When God Himself has set you upon the one and only road available to you?” The shade fell silent for a time, and the rain fell harder, as if hissing like boiling froth in a lake of flames. “Satan knew the rules, and that was why he rebelled.. Yes, he is just like Father—made in His image, as we were—and he would be worse about the Game. But at least he would be more honest about it. Unlike the other Son.’
The shade shifted suddenly—perhaps glancing behind the SUV—his manner nervous and skittish.
‘To think I have paid the way for His Eternal Life. I played my part and was punished for the rules laid before me. It is a cruel jest, and we are all its victims. Only those willing to exploit others as the bent backs for their stairway may arrive at Heaven. The rest of us…well, the road to Hell is paved not only with good intentions, but good men and women and children…’
Paul and Ashley went through every prayer known to them. They heard what the shade said to them, but they did not listen. It was noise without meaning. Their lives, their beliefs, their identities crowded out all meaning that might be gleamed from the shade’s confession. Even so, they heard the whispers, too, and ignored their meaning as well.
‘What is that?’ the shade said, startled. ‘We must go. Now. Please, Christians, if you are good people like you say you are, take me away from here. Anywhere. Please. Do not let them reclaim me again!’
The whispers grew louder; more numerous and overlapping. The shade in the backseat wailed.
“I only ask for brief passage away from here!” the shade. “It was by my eternal suffering that Christ Himself was given passage to Heaven! Now I only ask for a moment’s reprieve! A moment among the infernal eternity gaping before me! Please! Be as to me as the Samaritan of old!’
The whispers became as a flock of crows with coarse, squawking voices.
‘I beg you! Help me in my time of need! Pleeeeeease…!’
Paul and Ashley continued to pray, and to smash their ears with their hands, and to weep and dribble. It was only when a car passed them on the highway— blowing its horn furiously—that they opened their eyes and took their hands away from their ears. The sulfurous odor had vanished from the car and the rain had lessened greatly. It was another minute, however, before they dared to glance in their mirrors at the backseat. When they did, they found that the shade was gone.
Paul let go of the brake and slowly accelerated, the SUV heading down Highway 61 once again. The rains lessened to a drizzle, and then to absent-minded drips.
“Prayer delivered us,” Ashley said, still in shock. Her makeup was melting off of her face.
“And belief,” Paul said.
“Should we…should we tell Father Brown about it?”
“He would just say it was a hitchhiker. They’re always up and down this road. There’s no way he would believe it was a…”
“Demon,” Ashley said, finishing his thought for him. She sputtered and sniffled, then wiped her face.
Paul took off his glasses and wiped his eyes.
“The smell’s gone,” he said.
“Definitely a demon,” Ashley said, nodding.
“We should get married,” he said. “Officially. Before God.”
“We should,” Ashley agreed. “But we should get something to eat first.”
“But no pork or shellfish,” Paul said. “Old school. Old Testament.”
“We can’t let a woman wait on us, either.”
“Why?”
“Because she might be on her Period.”
“Right.”
They drove on.
“We should go to church in the morning,” Ashley said. She turned on the radio, but switched channels to a Gospel station.
A voice echoed distantly in the murk.
‘As below so above! As below so above, you damned hypocrites!’
Paul reached out and turned the volume up. He and Ashley drove on as the hymns swelled around them, grateful and contented in their unshaken, inviolate ignorance.

Brainstorm

Sometimes I cannot help but wonder
at Man’s cunning to multiply the dead,
but then I hear the rolling thunder
and see the lightning branching overhead
and, in a flash, see thousands thus slain,
knowing then the absolute blinding fear
of a god whose vast, fulgurous brain
is less Christ, more Holocaust engineer
with the power of electric chairs
flashing along thunderous synapses;
enough to kill whole towns unawares
while the god’s good temper ebbs or lapses.
And yet, why does such a god refrain
when death can be wrought quickly as thought can?
Note, the generous falling rain—
perhaps gods are as bipolar as Man.

A Meth-head To His Madness

Eddie was fascinated by flashlights,
as all Meth-heads are,
and he would click a flashlight
on and off
as if sending some SOS signals
to a UFO among the stars
as if he hoped it would
come down and take him somewhere else;
or he would aim the halo at the walls,
dragging its luminous circle
up and down
as if trying to bleach with light
the stained, decaying world clean.
The more Eddie’s teeth rotted out
and the more his skin bled
with cankerous craters,
the more obsessed he was with flashlights,
turning them on and off,
on and off,
being able to turn off the
flashlight,
but never his disease.
All the haloes in the world
cannot save Man from himself
and before the end
Eddie told me of the time
he saw the Devil—
not when he was taking,
but when he was being taken
by his Stepfather
in the old, mildewed shed
while his mom was sprawled out
on the trailer’s living room floor,
high on acid.
“No angels saved me back then,”
he said,
“and none are gonna save me now.
None are gonna save nobody.”
I told him, “That’s why people have to
save each other,”
and he laughed—
a laugh not of madness,
but of insight.
“What do ya think I need savin’ from?
It ain’t the Meth.”
He turned the flashlight off.
“That’s just the way out.”

Numb Puppet

Stretch the sinews, at the joint,
over bend and curve and bony point,
weave the spool of muscle thread
from limb to limb, and from toes to head;
pack the organs, tight betwixt
the rib cage, crammed together and mixed,
and seal the bones with the skin,
the skein that keeps all such snugly in.
Give him hopes and dreams and faith,
love the guiltless fool, mislead the naif,
pull at his strings, watch him dance
upon the wind, the whims, happenstance.
Tell him lies about the soul
as he feels troubled, that inner hole
no heart or nerve or hormone
can rightly fill, nor ought else so known,
for the puppet knows his strings
and the truth of all such mortal things;
cutting tendons, bleeding veins,
he frays his seams and unwinds his skeins,
gouges his eyes, stumbles blind
and strikes his skull to numb the mind
with trauma out from the shelf
atop which the puppet finds himself,
abandoned as Cain in Nod
by the Puppeteer, the Craftsman, God.