Haikus of Love And Lust

Love Haikus

A garroter’s tool
strangling so sweetly, the noose
twined by heartstrings.

When we fall in love
the rushing air tricks our hearts
with belief in flight.

True love is grounded,
not airy-headed; we feel
no impact from falls.

Lust Haikus

Infatuation:
the sleight of hand that robs us
with counterfeit coins.

The Questing Beast roams,
its voice like a hundred hounds—
Lust always wanders.

Pestle and mortar
grinding redolent flowers
into a poison.

Karma

The scale of the moon carp gleamed in Katashi’s palm, flashing like polished porcelain, or perhaps lacquered bone. He returned it to the pouch hidden beneath his breastplate. The bamboo breastplate was charred and scarred, haunted by the battle from which Katashi had forsaken his sworn service to the Tanaka clan. It had been a sardonic retreat into the woods. He fancied the idea of finding another clan to serve, such as in Kyoto, but halfway there abandoned the plan. Having no home, he made a home for himself here, in this valley beneath the howling mountains, and earning his life as a bandit with a dull blade and sharp threats.
The valley was an ideal place to stake the tearaway remainder of his life. Cutting through its wooded beauty was an important road that led to Kyoto and, so, was frequented by both riffraff and riches. There was a river that flowed like a sacred serpent nearby, replete with fish and frogs and such, and the woods was an assembly of the loveliest trees. Cedars, pines, maples, sakuras, dogwoods, plum, cherry trees. There were momiji trees with their leaves like a fan of sharp spear blades, and mountain ash, and the mighty oaks, their strange limbs frozen in kabuki dances. Katashi cherished trees, and the lovely landscape. He may not have adhered to Bushido now, but the appreciation of beauty still burned warmly in his breast long after all other things—like etiquette and Zen Buddhism—had extinguished. Sometimes, too, when the moon rode the clouds high like a princess in a palanquin, Katashi composed poetry in his head in celebration of the beauty of that hour. Sometimes the poetry visited him in the hot noon when he cooled himself in the shade of the woods, or drank water from the pools that spooled together from the waters of the mountains looming over that valley.
And yet, Katashi was not happy. He could be content, and even feel vacant of want, but such moments ebbed away as the flames and smoke rose again in his memories, reminding him of the Tanaka estate collapsing to ash. Whereas he used to meditate, now he could never sit still long enough to find inner peace. Rather, the memories assailed him on raven wings, like Tengu hellbent on mischief. In many ways, Katashi was a bitter man, and tasted much of bitter fruit. His life under the Tanaka clan had been a sweet fruit of privilege fed on the bitter duty of blood. This was why he had always enjoyed persimmons, whether ripe or unripened. The bitter and the sweet had their place. Green tea, too, was what he enjoyed, and the bitterer the better. It awakened his senses and concentrated his mind before battle. And after each battle in service to his lord, when he had often returned to the Tanaka estate, he was pleased to eat sweet rice and candies. He had taken pleasure in the indulgence of life in all of its diametric opposites.
Nowadays Katashi gathered and dried his own tea, and fished, and stole sacks of rice as he needed them during the Winter. He had few possessions, but they were enough to sustain him: his dull blade, a fishing spear, a tea cup, and a pot with which he cooked his fish, his rice, and brewed his tea.
And then came a day of yet greater change for the ronin. It had begun like all others. He rose, brewed tea, speared his breakfast in the river, cooked, ate, and then surveyed the valley road for passing spoils. He soon found them.
It was a group of monks, three in all, escorted by two samurai. The three monks surely had coins for their journey. The eldest monk looked especially old and presumptuous. The middle-aged monk looked chubby about his jowls and had a protuberant belly, meaning he ate well. The third monk was a young man; slender and almost feminine of feature. Surely, Katashi thought, these monks had coins.
Katashi then studied the two samurai closely, wondering which one he should dispatch first. Before he could come to a decision, however, a volley of roars rose and a group of bandits besieged the small group. They must have been new to the area, for Katashi had never seen them before. They wore bits of stolen armor here and there, used axes and kamas and secondhand blades. One used a fishing spear. Katashi watched grimly as the samurai were overwhelmed. He would have, at least, killed them honorably, not dishonorably ambush them with lackeys to assist. Face to face duels were his way. This, on the other hand, was a shameful display. Even so, one of the samurai managed to deflect the ambush and maim one of his attackers before he was cut down. He died with hatred etched on his face, and without a yelp of protest. Katashi would have felt honored to kill such a man, but the bandits did not indulge such thoughts. The moment the samurai fell the bandits fell upon him like dogs, arguing over who would claim his blade. There were five bandits in all, but the fifth was weeping on the ground, his lifeblood spilling out of his severed arm. The monks huddled together, but were untouched. Either they had nothing the bandits desired or the bandits feared hurting holy men.
Katashi never feared hurting holy men, nor killing them. They were often possessed of more wealth than their escorts.
At length, the four bandits had taken what they desired and fled into the forest. The fifth remained on the road, coiled like an infant and clutching the severed stump of his arm. The youngest monk attempted to tend to his wound, but the other two monks upbraided him.
“Let the dog die,” the eldest monk said. He wore a white robe and his eyes were hard, cold, and black like onyx. “Karma dictates his fate, and his fate will see him as a dog in the next life, or something worse.”
“But master…” the young monk said.
The other monk spoke up, his voice authoritative. “Do not question your better. You must remember how fortunate you are to have been taken upon this journey.” This monk wore a black robe and was of an age between the eldest and the youngest. “Let the dead lie, and let the dying follow suit.”
The youngest monk rose reluctantly and went from the bandit to the two dead samurai. The latter two had been stripped and bled freely from their fateful wounds upon the road.
“Do not touch the dead,” the black-robed monk commanded. “You will taint yourself with the corruption of death, and so doom us all. We must return to Kyoto and acquire another escort.”
“But the mountain…” the young monk protested.
“It will remain until we return,” the middle-aged monk said. “We must not dare the mountains unprotected. A hasty foot leads to a foolish fall. And youthful feet are hastiest of all.”
“But the demons will kill again,” the young monk said. “We have waited too long to protect the people of the village. Too many have died, and many more will die tonight.”
The two older monks reddened at the young monk’s words, scowls drawn on both men’s faces.
“We could not address this problem until now,” the middle-aged monk growled. “Lord Noteru had no Samurai to spare, as you know, and now we must report to him the deaths of two of his loyal men. He will not be pleased and will likely not be urgent in sparing more men in our mission.”
It was then that Katashi emerged from the shadows of the woods.
“The boy has bamboo for a spine,” he said, “or perhaps bamboo for his head.”
Katashi was pleased by the surprise on the monks’ faces. The two older monks stepped back as the imposing ronin approached. The young monk stood defiant. Katashi looked him up and down, grinning.
“Perhaps both, though he looks more a woman than the last I rutted upon.”
“What do you want?” the eldest monk asked. “Did your gang not spill enough blood already?”
“I do not belong to them,” Katashi said, a grim smile upon his face. “If I did belong to them I would have cut them down rather than see them fight an outnumbered force so cowardly.”
“A murderer with principle!,” scoffed the middle-aged monk.
“What is a Samurai except that?” Katashi said. “Though also with a master, and since I have none, I am simply a ronin.”
“What do you want?” the eldest monk demanded. “Our escort has been slain and stripped of all possessions. There is nothing we can offer you. We are holy men. We have no need of earthly possessions, and so no wealth to tempt your wickedness.”
Katashi laughed mirthlessly. “The thick robes of holy men have always concealed secret wealth, and secret wickedness. I ask only for wealth, however. Coins. Now.”
The two elder monks exchanged irritated glances, then disdainful glances toward the corpses of their guards. The eldest monk nodded to the middle-aged monk. The middle-aged monk withdrew a pouch from his robe. It jingled.
“You profane man,” the middle-aged monk complained. “It will buy you only your way into the next life as a worm.”
The monk handed the pouch of coins to Katashi.
“A peaceful, needful life,” Katashi said. He put the pouch within his breastplate, beside the pouch with the white koi scale. “Tilling the earth and helping a fisherman’s hook to feed his family. Much more needful a life than that of a monk, I should think.”
“You despicable blasphemer!” the middle-aged monk ejaculated. “You do not deserve that gold!”
“Or perhaps I could devise a need of you, after all,” Katashi said. He drew his katana. “My blade is dull and wants testing. Perhaps I should test its sharpness with a holy man’s neck.” His eyes went from one monk to the other. “But which one?” His eyes fell upon the eldest monk. “The oldest? His is sure to be tough enough to test a blade. His neck is so corded with age, like a tree’s trunk.” He looked at the middle-aged monk. “Or perhaps the fat one would be a better test of a blade. His neck is thickly swollen and surely as difficult to severe as a hog’s head from its body.”
The middle-aged monk backed away, as did the eldest monk.
Katashi turned toward the young monk. “Your neck is young and strong,” he said. “It might prove to be the best test of all. What do you say to that?”
“If you must test your sword,” the young monk said, “then please do so. But please do so after we have cleansed this mountain of corruption.”
Katashi was taken aback, but did not let on. “You care very much about this mountain,” he said.
“It is not just the mountain,” the young monk said. “It is a matter of the villages near here. This is crucial for saving lives and easing suffering.”
“The mountain must wait,” the eldest monk said.
This caused the youngest monk more upset than anything the ronin had said to him thus far. “But master! We must purify the mountain!”
“We cannot even defend ourselves against this wind-blown ruffian,” the middle-aged monk said, turning on the young monk. “How are we to defend ourselves against what we will face in the mountains?”
Katashi sheathed his blade, and laughed.
“Why would you not simply trust in the Buddha to see you safely to your destination? Why would you need armed warriors for escorts? Or is it that Buddha is a matter of your occupation rather than your belief?”
“We do believe in Buddha,” the middle-aged monk retorted testily. “But not everyone believes, and not everyone who believes behaves as if they believe.”
Katashi laughed again. “Very true. Just so, I believe in Buddha, and I carry a blade with me, for Buddha does nothing for us. He is too lost in the bliss of his own Satori to care for us or anyone except himself.”
The monks gasped. The middle-aged monk glowered and spoke with scorn.
“You are an endless well of blasphemies!” he snapped. “Your soul is lost! You will never break the cycle! Instead, you will descend into blood-madness and become an Oni!”
Katashi nodded gravely. “Perhaps I have descended and become an Oni already. I have killed hundreds, you know, and the Buddha never interfered on their behalf. Nor on my own. Rivers of blood have flowed and, in the center of it, like an unfeeling stone, the Buddha has slept, indifferent to the world.”
The two older monks exchanged looks again.
“It is time to depart,” the eldest monk said, folding his arms and turning away. “Come. Leave the wretch to his fate.”
“Do as you please,” Katashi said. “Your coin has bought you your way. Tread your path as you wish, but know the Buddha does not care.”
The two monks began to walk down the valley path. The youngest monk did not follow.
“I will not forsake the mountain,” the young monk said. “I will continue on alone.”
“It will be dark soon,” the elder monk said. “And you have no protection.”
“I have faith in the Buddha,” the young monk said. “I need nought else.”
Katashi should have laughed, and yet he did not. There was a steel-edged resolve in the young man’s tone that reminded Katashi of the battlefield. And while he may have dismissed the Samurai code and the Eightfold Path of the Buddha, he did not dismiss the courage of a man, especially combating that devil known as Circumstance.
“A fool, then,” the middle-aged monk said. “I will dedicate a Lotus Sutra to you in the hope that you will be reborn into a fairer realm. Farewell.”
The two monks went their way. The young monk went his way, through a torii gate and up a long-forsaken mountain path. Katashi, curious, followed the monk from within the woods. He was in want of diversion, and would find it.

It was not long before the sun set and the shadows stretched, darkened, and pooled as a lake in the valley. Despite the darkness of the woods, the monk did not falter, but continued up the mountain at the same determined pace as when there was still sunlight with which to see.
To Katashi’s surprise, there were lights along the path up the mountain— burning blue lights here and there among the trees and along the path. Voices whispered and murmured as the monk approached. Katashi heard them, too, coming from behind him, beside him, above him, below him. He was used to opponents of flesh and blood, not apparitions which a blade could not wound. Yet, he would not cower so long as the monk did not.
The monk pulled up his orange sleeves, exposing his hands. Within them he clutched prayer beads. As the burning blue flames encircled him, he bowed his head and raised his hands, entwined by the beads. Within the angry convergence of the blue light the monk prayed. The flames drew nearer, as if to engulf him, but he did not mind them, continuing with his prayer. The flames began to dwindle, and their voices became desperate. They cried and they wailed. They vowed revenge, and enumerated their sorrows. Nonetheless, the monk prayed, his voice a steady lullaby in the otherworldly light. By and by, they diminished, becoming so small that they were like fireflies among the trees, and then faraway stars, and then glinting embers. At last, the flames dissipated entirely, leaving only the monk on the path, and Katashi in the woods.
The monk turned and looked directly where Katashi concealed himself behind an ash tree. The ronin stepped forward
“Your blade will not always protect you,” the monk said. “Often it will harm you, even if it never spills one drop of your blood.”
Katashi stepped forward onto the mountain path. “What were those flames?”
“Onibi,” the monk said. “Lost spirits. The victims, I believe, of the evil that lurks atop these mountains.”
“Where did they go? Did you destroy them?”
“I sent them forth from their suffering,” the monk said. “I hope they find peace in the next life to come.”
Katashi snorted. “Doubtful. There is no peace in this life or any other. They go from one storm to another, and there is no refuge.”
The monk withdrew his hands and prayer beads into his sleeves, then crossed his arms. “Why do you shadow me?” he asked.
Katashi ignored the question. “I am surprised you could sense me. I am silent as a fox when I desire to be.”
“Your walk is not of the woods, however much you wish it to be. You are a man too much in disharmony with himself to ever be in harmony with the world.”
Katashi frowned. “You speak with high-hand when you wish. Were you born of a noble family?”
“No,” the monk said, continuing his uphill walk. “I was born of a humble fisherman.”
“And yet the Buddha was a prince,” Katashi said, following the monk with an easy gait. “He knew nothing of suffering, yet is supposed to somehow teach us how to overcome it. Not all of us have castles and kings to keep us sheltered from suffering.”
“You wish to antagonize me,” the monk said. “But you only succeed in revealing the extent of your own suffering.”
Katashi grinned mirthlessly. “I have not suffered more than most, except, perhaps, those whom I met and slew upon the battlefield.”
“You relish in death,” the monk said. He shook his bald head with pity. “Just so, I will pray for you, invoking the Buddha to guide your soul to its inmost peace.”
“There is no peace hidden there, either,” Katashi said, his tone harder now. “No more than there is peace in the inmost of a storm. Lightning crashes all around. The winds howl. The rains fall. The sky grows dark and the people tremble in their splintered homes. Life is dynamic. Only after death is peace attained, and even then it is not stillness, but decay as Life again eats away restlessly upon the ruined flesh.”
“You do not respect the Buddha’s teachings,” the monk said.
“Nor the teachers of those teachings,” Katashi said grimly. “If you only knew how many holy men I have slain, you would quiver in your robe.”
“Why have you not slain me?” the monk asked. “Why did you not slay my brothers? You could have easily done so.”
“I did not slay your brothers because they will return with more coins,” Katashi said. “And you…well, I did not slay you because I judged it more entertaining to witness your failure upon the mountains than to kill you outright. Or, perhaps, I may just test my dull blade on your neck after all.”
The flapping of large wings and the strange cawing laughter of a crow interrupted their conversation. They looked to the treetops and saw a winged shadow pass over the pale moon. Its laughter echoed within the woods; at one moment behind them and another moment ahead; to the left, then to the right. The creature’s laughter was as coarse as an old crone’s cackle.
At length, a branch shook overhead and creaked beneath the weight of the figure.
“What a pair to see!” the coarse-throated voice crackled. “A monk and a ronin. What fun to be had! I can scarcely decide what to do first! Should I eat the monk’s eyes and replace them with his prayer beads? Or should I remove the ronin’s genitals and place them in his mouth?”
Katashi unsheathed his sword and pointed it toward the shadowy figure. The dull blade gleamed white in the moonlight. His voice rang out in challenge.
“Come and face me first, you presumptuous creature! I will cut your grandstanding pride down as a sickle the sapling!”
The branch shook and a great gust of wind rushed downward with the winged figure that landed before them.
“Face me, mortal,” the creature said, “and we shall test how well that dull blade cuts.”
The winged creature wore a black robe and a black raven’s hat, like a priest, but had a long nose extending out from a red face. In one clawed hand it held a black-bladed katana; in the other it held a scroll such as would adorn a temple. Written upon it was the Lotus Sutra, but distorted. Perverse.
Katashi stepped forward as the Tengu grinned. The monk interceded.
“Tengu,” the monk said. He held up his hands with the prayer beads entwined. “You must not face him. You will not win. Tengu were the demons that taught the warrior arts to Man.”
“I can fight him,” Katashi said, “and I will.”
“You will die,” the monk said.
“Then it shall be a glorious death,” Katashi said.
“And a glorious feast, too,” the Tengu said, laughing like a crow. “As are all the feasts provided us by the pride of Man.”
The creature slipped its blasphemous scroll into its black robe and held the handle of his katana with both clawed hands. Katashi dropped his sword into a low stance. The moon disappeared behind a wayward cloud, plunging the mountainside into a sea of darkness. Blade crashed against blade, and the darkness was flecked with flashes of light. Three clangorous strikes sounded and then the moon reappeared. Katashi and the Tengu had switched places. The young monk stumbled back in surprise, the Tengu only a few paces away from him.
“Clever creature,” Katashi said, “to use the darkness against men. But you fail to understand. I am no mere man, for you face a demon also.”
“Your boasts are most unseemly,” the Tengu said. The laughter was gone from his coarse corvine voice. Now remained only dreadful menace. “Luck struck thrice for you, and so is gone. Now only your dull blade and your skill remain, and what paltry things to safeguard your life! It will tatter like the flimsy threads of a spider’s web.”
“So says the firefly,” Katashi said, readying his blade in the high position. The moon gleamed, reflecting off of his blade to illuminate more clearly the dark eyes near which the blade arced.
The two warriors faced each other silently for a long time, as if waiting for another cloud to blind the moon. When the cloud came, at last, like a raven’s wing, there came five shrieking strikes of blade on blade, and sparks that seemed to alight upon the leaves of trees and burn a moment before fading once again into the uniform darkness.
The moon emerged again, and with her emergence came a gasp from the monk. Katashi stood beside him, and so, too, did the Tengu. But the Tengu remained standing only because Katashi’s blade held him up. The Tengu’s blade dropped to the ground and the Tengu slumped backwards, toward his crumpling wings. The Tengu’s words were mingled with blood and pain.
“Bested by a lowly man. What a pitiful thing.”
“No,” Katashi said, withdrawing his blade and letting the creature collapse upon the ground. “Bested by a superior demon.”
The Tengu dissipated into a flurry of black feathers, all of which were subsumed into the shadows. Only the demon’s sword remained. Katashi stooped and picked it up. Surveying its black blade for a moment, he discarded his old, dull sword and claimed the new black blade in its place. He sheathed it and was pleased by the shriek of its blade in the scabbard.
“A demon’s blade befitting a demon,” he said.
“You may yet be a demon,” the monk said, reproachfully. “But I will thank you all the same.”
Katashi faced the monk with a sardonic frown on his face.
“If the Shogun wished to exterminate these demons,” Katashi remarked, “he should have sent an army, not three defenseless monks.”
“Bloodshed only feeds the demons,” the monk said. “You win only a temporary victory at best. This Tengu will return with the new moon, as will any you happen to slay this night. The portal to the realm of the Oni must be closed with an exorcism, otherwise neither the mountains nor the valley nor the villages will know peace.”
“When I kill someone,” Katashi said, “he remains dead.”
“A human, perhaps,” the monk said, “and perhaps not even then. Perhaps you have peopled this mountain yourself with the deaths you have sown upon previous battlefields. Perhaps you have a burden in all of these ill-begotten creatures and their insatiable bloodlust.”
It was Katashi’s turn to feel perturbation, yet it passed quickly. He had no time or patience for emotions that might disadvantage him on the battlefield. The monk continued up the mountain. Katashi followed.

It was a long hike, and the moon guided them. As the night progressed the howling of the mountain increased. It was a faraway whisper at first, but soon became as a wind just on the other side of the trees. The monk spoke suddenly.
“If you do not commit yourself to the Eightfold Path you will never reach Satori, but will continue in the cursed cycle of reincarnation.”
“It matters little to me,” Katashi said. “I do not care to be part of some divine realm. Does the tiger wish to be declawed and defanged? How happy could such a pathetic creature be?”
“If you persist in violence you may indeed become an Oni.”
Katashi shrugged. “I am worse than an Oni, little monk. Most men are. For we are shameful hypocrites. At least the Oni do not pretend to be anything other than what they are: blood-drinkers. They eat men without justifying it. They do not say, ‘I kill for my master,’ or ‘I wage war for the sake of peace.’ They kill and they enjoy it and they do not taint their tongues with falsehoods to ease their conscience.”
“And you enjoy killing?” the monk said.
“I enjoy surviving,” Katashi said. “And you must kill to survive.”
“It seems you enjoy little,” the monk said, “not living, and maybe not even surviving.” Katashi scoffed.
“And that is the hypocrisy of monks. They claim to live for peace and to avoid bloodshed, but all the while they must employ warriors to kill their foes on their behalf. Monks do not live more peacefully. They simply burden needful violence upon others, like a lord sending his peasants to the paddies to harvest and store the rice.”
The monk was thoughtful for a long moment, and then sighed. “You are not wrong,” he said. “The burdens of this world are often unloaded upon others. And we monks are as guilty.” He took a deep breath. “And, so, if you wish to leave my service, please leave. I will not burden you with the karma entailed in this task.”
“I am not in your service,” Katashi growled. “I am merely sharing the path for a time. I seek entertainment. Nothing else. Well, no, that is not true.” His hand went to the handle of his new sword. “This new blade pleases me. For that, I suppose I am grateful to you.”
“I would rather have died than led you to further bloodshed,” the monk said solemnly.
Katashi snorted. “How did such a one as you come to be a monk? Did the Buddha come to you in a dream?”
“How did you become a warrior?” the monk countered. “Did Hachiman put a sword in your hand and a blood-thirst in your belly?”
“I kill men,” Katashi said. “It is what I am good at, so I do it.”
“What of women and children?” the monk asked.
Katashi took the monk by the arm, halting them both. He looked at the monk directly, and in his gaze was a hardness that cut quick and sharp like a blade.
“If a youth dares to fight me, then he is a man in his own estimation, and I would not dishonor him by refusing his challenge. And I never harm women. Ever.” Katashi scowled. “You did not answer my question. How is it that you became a monk?”
The young monk said nothing. He put a finger to his lips, hushing any talk. In the howling wind of the mountains there was a strange sound of chattering—a creeping, crawling, chattering among the trees. Katashi peered at the shadow-swollen trees. Things uncoiled there; things with sharp claws and gnashing pincers and long segmented bodies.
Katashi drew his black blade as the long-bodied creatures came billowing through the darkness on their many legs. The nearest creature lunged for the monk, but the monk ensnared its pincer-snapping head with his prayer beads. With a quick prayer the beads glowed with white fire, radiating energy as the chattering centipede blazed and burned away to ash.
“Namu Amida Butsu,” the monk said.
The other two demons undulated toward Katashi like long ribbons, their movements interweaving with one another so as to confuse and dismay their intended prey. But Katashi’s senses were sharp, splitting the shadows with which the demons concealed themselves. One lunged, and then the other, and with two slashes Katashi had split the giant centipedes in two, their bisected bodies writhing wildly upon the ground. In two subsequent motions he plunged his blade into one head and then the other, swiftly silencing their chattering once and for all.
The monk and the ronin continued up the mountain path.
“You did not answer my question,” Katashi said. “How did you come to be a monk? Was it in search of respite from agonies? Or was it to seek agonies through self-denial?”
“Life is hard and full of agonies,” the monk said. “That is the purpose of Buddha. To offer respite and refuge from the sorrows of Life.”
“What do you know of sorrows?” Katashi demanded. “Monks live apart. They are chosen as children, raised in monasteries, provided protection by the same warriors whose means of life they shun.”
“I was not always a monk,” the young monk said. “I was, for the longest time, an orphan.”
“Born from a bamboo stalk?” the ronin mocked.
“My father was a fisherman,” the monk said. “My family lived in a small fishing village on the coast. I do not remember my parents and siblings very well. They were drowned in a tsunami. I was found afterward, clinging to a bundle of bamboo that floated in the aftermath. I was found by a kabuki group, of all things. They made jokes about it, saying I floated into the Floating World. From then on I grew up in the kabuki theater. I learned how to perform and how to play music on the shamisen. I became a very popular kagema. I performed in the dress of a woman, and even played Amaterasu, and dared to think I could shine as brightly as the sun. Men hungered for me, and paid for me. They used me as they would a woman, and wealthy women paid for me as well, and I made money for my kabuki group. But I hated it. My life was suffering.”
“And so your precious Buddha saved you? Or did he visit you in the night? I have heard that monks enjoy kabuki, too, and hold private audiences when the world is silent except for the chirping of lonely crickets. They enjoy kagema as well.”
The young monk ignored him.
“I shuddered at the touch of men and women both. I wanted to run away, but felt guilt and shame at the thought of selfish flight. The kabuki players had rescued me as a child. I felt that I owed them my life.”
Something in Katashi’s posture shifted. It was not so rigid, even if it was as flint-to-flame ready.
“Why did you leave?” Katashi asked, his voice neither soft nor harsh.
“I was violently abused by one man. When I attempted to tell the others they told me to keep silent about it. The man was very wealthy, and was a noble. Thereafter I cut my hair and fled to the monastery. The monks refused to take me at first, knowing who I was. You are correct, ronin; the kabuki actors are paid to visit monks— some monks, but not all—and I had been very popular among the Zen masters. They hated the shame of my presence on their holy grounds, but I persisted. I invoked the sayings of the Buddha, and the Sutras I had learned while in the kabuki theater. Still, they refused me.”
Katashi may have sighed, or hissed. Something in his bearing shifted. The monk continued.
“Then one night I met an old monk while wandering the woods. He told me to speak his name to the monks. His name was Eiji. I spoke his name the next morning and the monks were astonished. They asked me where I had heard his name. I explained that I had learned the name of the man from the man himself. They immediately accepted me. Eiji, they said, had been the great exorcist in the monastery. He was respected even by the Shinto priestess of a local village for his ability to exorcize malevolent entities.”
“And now you exorcize demons,” Katashi said. “Where is this Shinto priestess? Could she not aid you in your quest to cleanse these mountains?”
The monk inhaled and exhaled. “She was slain but a week ago by an assault of demons in her village. Many holy men and women have been slain lately while trying to protect their villages against the demons.”
Katashi thought about all of the many nights he had spent in the woods, a mere raven’s flight distance, from this mountain. No mischief befell him. No malevolent spirits had stalked and attacked him. Why?
“What hope have you in standing against the source, then?” Katashi asked the monk. “It seems as foolish as a fish trying to hold back the river.”
“It may be foolishness,” the monk said. “But I refuse to stand aside and let more people die from inaction. The Shogun is too concerned with destroying the warlords plotting against him to concern himself with demons. And so long as men wage war the demons shall invade and feast and prosper in our lands.” The monk paused, turning to look Katashi in the eye. “So…you now know this to be a doomed endeavor. Do you wish to continue shadowing me?”
Katashi did not hesitate. “I am bored of stealing from peasants and holy men. I wish for more excitement, and more blades against which to test my mettle. Folly invites much diversion.”
They continued up the mountainside. Summer’s blooming abundance cluttered all around them. The slivers of moonlight led them onward and upward. The night was warm and balmy, the mountain forests thick with foliage and mystery. Long abandoned huts reared here and there, the dilapidated structures sinking into their own bamboo bones and haunted by unnatural fires in their dark depths. A temple, too, sat behind a torii gate. Eyes peered from within its cobwebbed shadows. Whatever kami were worshiped there had long given the temple over to more malignant entities.
“A man’s soul is like a woodblock,” the monk said. “Each life we live, reincarnated, is a print from that woodblock.”
“Another lecture, is it?” Katashi remarked.
“The Buddha helps us cut away the details,” the monk said, “removing the jutting imperfections used to stain the page until all that remains is a flat, smooth expanse until a pure whiteness remains, the impurities of this world slipping off of us, untouched by the ink.”
“I am rather fond of woodblock prints,” Katashi said. “Especially those of Mt. Fuji. Why should we not enjoy what imprints our lives and makes us who we are? Why would anyone not stain the page with the beauty of this world?”
“Why are you a ronin?” the monk countered. Before Katashi could answer, the monk spoke again. “Because this world is transient and fleeting. It is fickle. One day you have a place with a master, and then next day you are adrift after a great calamity. Not even the peaceful trees are spared. The seasons are restless and wait for no man, however painful the cold Winter winds are on his old bones.”
“Even so,” Katashi said, “I love this world. It has beauty. It has strength. Perhaps I will never reach Satori, but what of it? I would rather stay earthbound with the changing of the seasons swirling around me than elevate to a realm of sheer consciousness. The world is a fickle mistress, but she remains beautiful, whether a maiden or mother or old crone.”
The monk was silent for a long time. He stared at the beads entwining his hand. At length, he spoke.
“And that pouch you clutch within your armor? What is the meaning of it?”
Katashi bristled. “There are secrets dear to a man, and he would rather die than reveal them to anyone. Even to your precious Buddha.”
The silence between them opened around them and they leaned into it as they ascended. It did not comfort them, but it did not provoke them either, covering the soreness between them like a scar. Distantly they heard the howling of the mountain’s summit.
They continued to ascend the high path up the mountain.

There was a waterfall somewhere. Its rushing music swelled as they neared it. The land beneath their feet leveled for a time, and the forests opened wide, falling away to let the moonlight play vastly in the mist. Neither the ronin or the monk spoke. They heard the strumming of a koto mingled in with the waterfall’s cascade. Approaching, they saw the heavy breath of the crystalline cataract aglow with moonlight, and, within that heavy breath, the large figure of someone sitting upon a rock in the pool.
“It is a demon,” the monk whispered. “It will not let us pass.”
“We shall see,” Katashi said. “Wait here.” He approached the waterfall.
Strangely, the nearer he came to the waterfall, the less he heard of it, and the more the beautifully sad music of the koto echoed in his ears. At length, the music continued, but the figure leapt from the rock. Still shrouded in mist and shadow, it walked slowly forward. It grew taller as it approached, cradling the large koto in its long arms and still somehow plucking at the strings to haunt the mountains with its melody. Such long, unfolding arms. Such long, unfolding fingers.
A figure emerged at last, tall and imposing, her kimono black and her long hair white. Her face was like a grotesque Noh mask, only it was not carved of wood to frighten children. The sad, fang-cluttered smile was her own as well, as were the horns upon her crown and the glowing red eyes. Even now her long, blood-stained claws plucked and struck at the strings of the koto. She was a kijo: a mountain ogress.
Somewhere behind him Katashi heard the monk muttering incantations. The ronin hushed him with a wave of his hand. He then walked toward the tall creature, listening to her song as if it was the most beautiful music he had ever heard. When they came face to face he did not flinch, nor did he unsheathe his sword. Instead, he unsheathed himself, casting his sword, armor and the robe beneath aside. He stood boldly naked in the phantom-spun moonlight. The only things he wore were his scars and the pouch whose string hung from his neck, its singular content being the scale of the moon carp.
The kijo stared at Katashi, her red eyes glowing with hunger. She ceased playing her song and set down the koto. The koto was as long as Katashi was tall. Its board was made of bones and its strings made of sinews and tendons. The ogress gazed at him for a long moment, eyeing him up and down, her grotesque face full of hunger, and sadness.
The ogress raised a taloned hand high above her horned head. Katashi awaited its fell plunge, but when it plunged even he was startled by its boldness. Her hand went to the fold of her black kimono and peeled it away from her tall, angular body. She stood before him as naked as he dared stand before her, her breasts pendulous and her womanhood glistening. He did not flee, but stood fast before her as her long, bony arms embraced him. He embraced her in turn, and she pressed her fetid mouth against his own, tasting of blood and death; a familiar kiss he had tasted many times on the battlefield; a taste that thrilled and repulsed him, enlivening him and sickening him with that katana blade sharpness of contrast. Her fangs cut his lips sweetly.
Katashi sucked at her breasts while she pressed herself atop him vigorously. She kissed him many times, and with each kiss he recalled a blade or arrow or spear that kissed his skin, leaving a scar. He no longer felt repulsed, nor even thrilled. This was familiar; this was his life written in the characters of kisses and scars and terrors, all tracing the imminence of death. Even her grotesque face did not repulse him, nor was it truly ugly after a time. His whole life had been ugly and bloody, soaking battlefield after battlefield; enough blood to drown a dragon. But when the Tanaka clan fell, he saw the fruits of his efforts wither and decay on the shorn vine.

The monk ventured further up the mountain path, moving slowly beneath the cover of the trees. A wide berth he gave to the two lovers. To him it seemed their lovemaking was both sacrilegious and beautiful—grotesque and sincere. He was reminded of the many nights he had pleased men and women after his troupe’s kabuki plays. He never enjoyed any of these encounters, save one. And the pleasure of that encounter scared him, even now.
There had been an older woman that had often attended his plays. He had seen her in the audience, distinguished by her gaze, for she was transfixed upon him, her eyes as bright and hot as two toro lanterns. She paid only once for him, and even then seemed shy and embarrassed as he disrobed before her. Yet, once she had begun to touch him her passion kindled and she was as lively and ferocious as any woman half her age. But there was a tenderness to her, also, and genuine love in her lovemaking. She sought to please him as much as to enjoy him, and he found that he was genuinely affected by her care. Afterwards, when the sakura blossoms had been shaken fully from her desires, she lay within his arms, her forehead against his chest. She sang a song—an old folk song—and sounded almost as a child. The lines beneath her dark eyes had smoothed and she looked fresh and young though she was old enough to be his mother.
Even now her song haunted him.

“Cherry blossoms take flight
like butterflies,
the stars of Obon night
like lovers’ eyes
awake in bed, though soon
to drift asleep
beneath the lantern moon
where dreams will keep
living on—ever on
after we part
at the coming of dawn
and the dimming of my heart.”

The monk came to the cresting crown of the mountain. A pagoda gleamed white in the moonlight, towering like a mountain unto itself. It was made of human bones. Perched atop its many eaves were Tengu, their black crow wings arched behind their backs. They cackled and cawed riotously. Down below, and standing on the pagoda’s various stories, were Yokai and Tengu. Worse of all, there were Oni. They were large, grim-faced ogres with sharp teeth and long claws. The monk knew that he had now come to the place of evil infection in the mountains and would need to exorcize the place of infection.
Looking about, he found a circle of oaks. There was a natural power here. He could sense it. It was powerful with benevolent kami. They would lend him their aid. He readied his incense burner, his kindling, his prayer beads, the Lotus Sutra, and his nerves. He began the purification ritual, chanting and rolling his prayer beads in amongst the incense smoke.
The monk went unnoticed for a time. Yet, he was soon spotted by a Tengu flitting about the skeletal pagoda. The Tengu squawked like a crow in alarm, pointing to the circle of oaks. Soon the Oni and other Yokai descended from the pagoda. They came in a languid tide at first, and then rushed on like a wave. The monk knew, then, that he had no time to complete the ritual. He knew he would soon die.
And then Katashi arrived, crashing into the beastly creatures like a divine wind. He drew his blade and slew a handful of the twisted creatures without ever clashing swords. He moved like water through a sieve, seemingly untouched by the horde. But the horde was numerous and boasted many formidable foes. His initial attack was effective, but the element of surprise was gone. The larger Oni gathered around him, even as the smaller Yokai attempted to slip past him only to be cut down. The Oni grinned and could have easily overpowered him, yet their pride did not allow it. One by one they faced him, and one by one he tested the black blade on their thick hide and horns and heads.
The moon reddened, like a basin of blood. All that was touched by its light was stained with a crimson glow. The mountains seemed drowned in blood. A strange castle could be seen in the night sky. It, too, was made of bones and sat in a lake of blood.
Katashi’s black blade dripped blood, and his ferocity was whetted by his bloodlust. He struck at the Oni and Tengu with such power that it forestalled them, even pressed them back. But Katashi could not truly defeat them, and soon suffered injuries. Slashes and lacerations bled him; the trenchant pains of war staggered him and belabored his breath. He felt so alive, though, and determined. He exulted in the battle.
But then the demons began to mock the ronin. They called to him by his name.
“I remember you, Katashi!” a two-headed Oni said. “You slew my brother and I upon the field! We did not expect to see you here!”
“Did I slay your courage as well as your bodies?” Katashi said. “Why did you never seek me when I was so close to you?”
“The Oni value your contributions to their armies!” the two-headed Oni said, grinning his canine fangs. “You have been a faithful servant of blood and carnage!”
As before, Katashi cut down the two brothers, though now he was more shaken than when he had dealt them their first deaths. For the first time in his life he paled and trembled. Another demon sprang forward: a one-eyed giant with a spear and gnashing fangs. Katashi tightened his hold on his sword, raising it upright beside his head. The blood oozed down the black blade. It was red like human blood; like the countless crimson ponds Katashi had spilled upon countless battlefields.
“Katashi!” the giant yelled in joy through his fangs. He laughed a deep, bellowing guffaw that shook the heavens. “So many warriors and generals!” The giant gestured to the expanse of demons. “And all because of you, Katashi! You have made the demon world strong! So strong! So numerous! So unstoppable!”
“I will cut you all down again!” Katashi vowed.
The giant laughed. “Cut me down and I will return! I return every night, Katashi! Every night since that night beneath the sakura tree! Remember? Remember me? The one whom they called the Spear-Tongued Giant? You challenged me for the honor of being Lord Tanaka’s personal guard! You slew me without mercy, though the duel was meant to be bloodless.”
“You drew blood first!” Katashi roared, slicing at the giant with his sword.
The giant deflected the strikes. “True! If only I drew enough to kill you! Then, perhaps, I would have been the one peopling the demon realm and be esteemed among the legion! But you won, running your sword through my eye and killing me!”
The giant laughed again, seemingly as joyful of his fate as if he had won the duel.
Katashi circled the giant. “I will run you through your other eye, fool!”
The giant swung his club and Katashi rolled beneath the knotted wood, rising to his feet with a slash of his sword splitting the giant’s eye. The giant roared, his bellowing voice staggering into lunatic laughter as he clutched his ruined eye.
“Katashi!!!” he laughed. “You have not changed!”
The giant swung his club blindly, his muscular arms whirling in a frenzy. Katashi retreated discreetly while the giant’s blind attacks struck the other Oni rushing past him to confront the intruders. Small and large Oni were flung away, broken and crushed by the giant’s club. The horde did not baulk, but laughed as if the carnage was the greatest merriment to be had. Eventually a Tengu swooped down and beheaded the giant with his blade, if only to cease his flailing, and the blinded giant’s head fell to the mist-glimmering grass, still laughing.
“I will be back, Katashi!” he vowed. “Upon the next moon I will eat your eyes and drink your blood and welcome you among your true brethren for all eternity!”
The Tengu that had slain the giant now flew toward Katashi. Katashi raised his crimson-cloyed blade with one hand. With the other hand he stealthily drew his tanto blade from its concealed sheath. As the Tengu swooped, Katashi threw his tanto, piercing the crow-demon’s chest. The creature collapsed to the ground, barreling over the smaller Yokai below in a tangle of limbs and feathers. Stepping through this cobbled road of mangled bodies was a horned Oni with red skin and a large scythe. He seemed in a good mood.
“What are you trying to be now, Katashi?” the Oni said. “A nio? Laughable! And where is your fellow guardian?” The Oni looked past Katashi, seeing the monk in the woods. “Ah! A monk? To think you would ally yourself with a monk! I will sully his soul with the filth of his own flesh!”
The Oni dashed toward the trees, his scythe raised for a bloody harvest. Katashi dashed after the Oni, slashing the demon’s leg. It was a feint, however, and the demon spun about, his scythe seeking Katashi’s neck. Katashi twisted sideways, throwing his left arm up against the crescent blade. The blade drank deeply and Katashi nearly fell. Instead, he rallied himself through the blinding pain with a flaming fury and swung his black blade with his one good arm, beheading the Oni at a single stroke.
The Oni’s body fell, and beside it Katashi sagged to one knee, clutching his sword. The wounded arm hung limply, bleeding from the shredded socket. He was pale and a clammy sweat drenched his forehead. His eyes blurred in and out of focus and he felt drowsy; so tired that he should sleep forever.
The horde of Oni gathered around. They did not rush. They pleased themselves by mocking the ronin and his . Their taunts roused Katashi. He glanced back at the monk, his figure wreathed in white fire as he continued his chants. In among the white fire he saw other figures: small and large, strangely shaped; some humanoid, others not nearly so. These figures clustered around the monk protectively, driving back the smaller Yokai that had slipped past Katashi. He realized, after a moment, that they were kami. Nature spirits. It was then, at this realization—when he knew that Nature itself was aspiring to protect the Buddhist monk—that Katashi could not surrender. If the land of Nihon would aid the monk, then Katashi felt that the monk was worthy of Katashi’s service, even if the Buddha wasn’t.
Grimacing, Katashi wobbled as he righted himself up to his feet.
“I will rest in my death,” he told himself. “But for now…I must test my blade.”
The exorcism continued in earnest, and the battle continued in desperation. The floating castle began to fade, as did the howling of the demonic winds. The crimson moon waned, bleeding out until it was pink, and then dull white. Katashi bled out, too, and paled as he weakened. Still did he swing his blade against the horde, even as he fell to his knees again and again. Blood flowed from one eye, and blood clouded the other eye. His whole being was fury and pain.
The Oni and Tengu realized what the whitening of the moon meant. They fled in fear, as if from the chittering of a hungry Shinchu. It was too late for them. The castle faded from the sky and the pagoda faded from the mountaintop. With the latter faded the cursed creatures that had inhabited its towering stories and eaves. Soon all that remained was the mountain, the moon, the monk, and a dying man. The young monk hurried to his side.
“I will perform the rites,” the monk said, kneeling beside Katashi. “You have served the Buddha well and should be rewarded.”
“I served…Nihon…” the ronin said. A burst of blood in his throat shook him. Dropping his sword, he withdrew the pouch beneath his shattered breastplate. Out of it he took the white koi scale and held it up to look at it with his remaining eye.
“Your secret,” the monk said, softly.
“Yes,” he said. “The joy of my life…a smiling face…reflected in the moon pond…” He coughed up more blood, his breathing labored. His face was white and his lips red, like a kabuki actor. “Her smile…she loved the koi…”
“She was your lover,” the monk said.
“And my master’s concubine,” Katashi said, his voice slowing. “She…loved the moon pond…the koi…she said…she was like the koi fish…gave me…gave me this porcelain scale from…her hairpin…”
“She cared for you very much,” the monk said.
“Yes…she would…play the koto for me…sometimes…before we made love…” His bloody brow furrowed with pain. “During the invasion…she killed the lord of the Tanaka clan…herself…and fled to the woods… I do not know…what happened to her…”
“I will pray that both of you are united in your next lives,” the monk said.
“I do not…wish for much,” Katashi said, grimacing as a laceration in his gut broke and bled freely. “Just…just a peaceful life…of isolation…silence…without violence… without…wrath…and with the…beauty of the seasons…all around…such as when…when I told her…she was my moon…”
Katashi’s final breath faded away. The monk prayed over the ronin, repeating the Lotus Sutra to bless his passing. When morning came, so, too, did the sun, and the mountain was bathed in purifying light. The Oni and Yokai were gone. The kami rejoiced in their silent, subtle way. The monk purified Katashi and buried him, marking his grave with a stone. He then descended the mountain path.
Where the monk passed he met with no demon or ghost. The mountain had been completely cleansed. When he came to the waterfall and its pool he did not see the kijo anymore. Rather, the place was serene and uninhabited. He glanced at it for a moment, then turned to leave. The gleam of white motion caught his eye and he turned to look at the pool again. Floating in the pool, serene and content, were two pale white kois. They gleamed with a porcelain luster as they floated up. They were so white that the carved edges of their scales were invisible in the sheen along their flanks.
A leaf fell from a maple tree—burning orange like a phoenix’s feather. The monk bowed and then left the kois to their reward.

Storm

The trees danced lively with the wind,
pleased as a girl with princely courtships,
yet you stood quite still in the end
with a smirk twisting your scarlet lips,
and I knew, then, the truth of Love
and the truth of broken hearts and pain
as the thunder rumbled above
and the world was drowned in frigid rain.
The lightning cackled like a crone
and you left me in sleet-like silence,
unsheltered, wearied, all alone,
and so I would be for too long hence,
but I realized that this storm
existed always around your life
for you were the eye, calm and warm,
yet you were the storm, too, full of strife.

Talos Falls

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

Betwixt

At the pinching snip of Love and Loss,
the intersection, that fateful criss-cross
of scissors cutting like conjoined knives
that separate, at length, two lovers’ lives—
Atropos and her unyielding blade
pressures us together, made and unmade,
the freshly cut edge, and the sharp ache,
that defines and destroys within its wake.

Hatching Another Scheme

Such silken wisps of black eyebrows,
the hairs like spindly spider legs,
clever weavers, and quick to rouse,
pale eyelids just like spider eggs.
Veil-webbed eyes, each ready to hatch,
brimming with such a restless brood,
her gaze cocooned taut with a batch
of desires both profane and lewd.
Her eyelids open, at long last,
and mascara teardrops crawl out,
spinning their spinnerets so fast—
a tear stains black the widow’s pout.

Swallow

Her bioluminescence casts shadows

on the cavern’s cold, wet deep-sea walls,

reeling round like a carousel that glows

in Neptune’s silent, coral-toothed halls.

There are terrors written within the light

of her heart, that jellyfish aglow

and aquiver in endless depths of night

within the sea’s saltwater grotto.

Tongues twist and twine like sea slugs from conch shells,

tasting the other, a frank meeting

that stirs the blood to race in ocean swells—

a frenzied shiver of sharks eating.

He does not know how long her appetite

may be stayed, nor the strength of this love

that brought him low, away from sunlight,

but knows it better than most above,

for when her hunger waxes like the tide

and she swallows his heart at long last,

she will add it to the strange glow inside

and be brighter than day by contrast.

Handsome Blue Eyes, Immaculate Teeth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 The hag said:

 “With the rush and the reed,

 with both withy and need,

 in the dark Devil’s Fen

 will you thereby know then

 your fateful groom’s grin—

 most unique among men.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “But when?” Phoebe moaned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “Wi…Will?” she whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Poems

True Love

Listen—is not true love

alike to a well?

Fed from pure rains above

and full without fail?

Yet, such wells are earned

by devout effort,

by spade and shovel turned

to move stone and dirt

and deepen it the more,

then bolster with bricks—

to dig to the earth’s core

requires more than tricks.

But it shall not go dry

if quite respected,

and if by careful eye

never neglected;

whether in desert heat

or in arctic cold,

it will quench quite complete

when one’s young or old.

My love for you, Falon,

knows no arid drought,

gallon upon gallon

never running out,

nor will it spoil with slime

or grasping willow,

or the meddling of Time

or the chill of snow;

bottomless is this well,

bottomless this heart,

come and drink yourself hale—-

let us never part.

“Free Will”

A spider among the trees,

on its thread,

swaying in the breeze,

just overhead,

going to and fro, just so,

dangling high,

whichever way the winds blow

by and by,

still weaving its silk pattern

despite gales

from the thunderstorms that turn

like ship sails

the web it spins for itself,

that silk net

that feeds and sustains its health—

a vignette

to its will, to its own drives,

yet written

like all other spider lives

as writ when

born, inheriting instincts

without thought,

their patterns woven in links

just-so wrought.

And, so, when headwinds unwind

arachnid

weaves as ordained, its own mind

bound as bid

by the web of Fate, of Cause

which, unfurled,

determines all forms and laws

of the world.

Solipsism

A fool could be under reign of thunder

and think it his cravings yet satisfied,

taking to feast as a pig to plunder

and to drink, as rainfall, much gratified

that rain should fall only in his favor

to help wash down his solitary meal,

as he eats till grown tired of each flavor,

still thinking to give the thunder his fill.

Autumn Vayne

By the windowpane

in the library

so sat Autumn Vayne

with lips nigh cherry,

watching the cold rain,

sad little fairy.

Auburn was her hair

and brown her wet eyes

as she gazed out there

at the mournful skies.

“I wish the sky fair—

not this one which cries.”

Afire were the trees

with their flaring hues—

she sighed like a breeze

or a woman whose

man died overseas.

“Life’s the thing we lose.

Death’s the thing that frees.”

The leaves fell like flames

in the rainy eve

and with them the names

she had yet to grieve—

all the petty games

of such make-believe,

such make-believe love,

the green giving way

to the seasons of

young hearts gone astray

like those leaves above,

all wilting away.

Mournful Autumn Vayne

sat and watched the Fall

of leaves and of rain

and hearts, overall—

a vigil of pain

for the forlorn sprawl.

And she sat there long

till her hair changed, too,

fading fast, ere long,

to a copper hue

like the leaves which throng

an Autumnal view.