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.

The Song Of The Sea

The boy, he sits upon the cliff,

head bowed down and his tears streaming —

back home, his mother ’s cold and stiff

as if asleep, but not dreaming.

She washed ashore just yesternight

after a week missing abroad;

she had left the farm aft a fight

with her husband, that sorry sod.

From off this cliff the mother fell

while gathering up bitter tears,

thinking whether she ’d wait a spell

and return home, despite her fears.

But bleak and bitter was the moor

and the world was but a shadow,

the Song of Tides surged on the shore

and the moon called with a mad glow.

Down she fell into the ocean

as if of mind to be as free,

as some say, or so their notion

that she chose the tides of the sea.

For tides fling up along the bluff,

strumming a song of froth and spray,

and though it can be hard and tough,

there ’s no hatred in its way.

For the sea has a strong embrace

that can crush what it loves to death,

yet still she plunged from that high place

so the sea could take her last breath.

Unlike a man when in his drink

whose hands tighten to two hard fists,

the sea surges, but does not think,

splashing softly with its flung mists.

And though her body lay on land,

her soul is still in the free tide…

Look!  The son reaches out a hand

where flung-fingered froth becks inside.

Disenchanted (Expanded)

The fairies prance within my kilt

for she’s a lass bonnie built,

but when she kicked to dance a lay

she broke the wind—my fairies fled away.

But why fault such a lovely lass

her eagerness and a bit of gas?

Taking hold, then, I kiss her mute

and my fairies flee away at her toot.

To the chapel we go anon

with her bridal gown flowing on,

and at the altar love is vowed,

but my fairies flee when she farts aloud.

Across the threshold of my home

which is a cottage made of loam,

I carry the love of my life,

but the fairies sniff, groan, and flee my wife.

Upon my bed I lay her down

and from her breasts I doff her gown;

we make love sweet, gentle, and kind,

yet the pressure escapes out her behind.

A long life we live together,

in fair, fairer, fairest weather,

but the fairies remain outdoors

by day or night, for she farts as she snores.

Growing old, my lass never stops,

resounding through the mountaintops

of the highlands, lowlands, and all,

scaring the fairies with her war horn’s call.

But I never will mind her smell,

though oft like the sulphurs of Hell,

so why fret if my bonnie lass

wards fairies with her will o’ the wisp gas?

For in winter when cold winds blow

and the hearth is warm with fire’s glow

she lights it brighter with her fart

and warms me up body and soul, and heart.

Sweet Blasphemies

“O, you are the Devil, ”

you always say with a smile

while I lick your navel till

you croon, moan, gyrate.  Meanwhile

I say, ”Babe, you pray more

now, when we are making love,

than you do kneeling on the floor. ”

And with a pull, and a shove,

you are Lilith of old,

in Biblical times, in times gone,

and you straddle me, overbold —

demon riding, on and on.

Possessed, you rock yet more,

the paroxysms not yet done,

and you crash, like waves on a shore

beneath a hot, heaving sun.

Panting, sweating, a gasp

expelled, you rake your sharp claws,

Cleopatra clutching her asp

according to Heathen laws.

Galilee ebbs and flows

while old Babylon crumbles,

but listen to Ishtar —she knows

why a lonely god grumbles.

Passion and respect, both,

find a home in the other,

equal in both, and so Love ’s oath

is to joy in one ’s lover.

The first wrong done by Man

was not letting Woman find

in him equality, Woman

denied in body and mind,

and so, my sweet Lilith,

let us take turns in rhythm

and harmonize in breaths till myth

harmonizes within them.

Whosoever atop,

the rhythm remains, a song

of respect, of desire, nonstop;

passion was never a wrong,

and I would gladly flee

the comforts of Eden’s lies,

with you, to be in harmony

with the passion in your eyes.

The Dragon

From the gable the hanged man swayed,

weather-worn and his long coat frayed,

and, down below, the blacksmith laughed

to see crows as he plied his craft.

The sun went down, but the corpse stayed

while the blacksmith bettered his trade

until he heard hooves beating swift

neath the moon, in the midnight rift

of life and death, flesh and soul,

while the fog, thick, began to roll.

On pale horses there came a host

through the moonlight, each like a ghost

in fine Fae feature and attire,

of noble bearing, knight and squire.

“Hail,” said the blacksmith, “lord of streams,

lord of hills and of moonlit dreams.”

The Fae lord nodded, yet his eyes

went to the hanged man, and the flies

that buzzed about and swarmed around,

their song of joy a constant sound.

“You are as we,” remarked the lord,

pointing with his sharp silver sword.

“You have hunted and won, with skill,

as we have, in field, mount and hill.

But what worth is such common fare?

Wherefore this man dances in air?”

The blacksmith smiled shrewdly, and said

“Tell, first, the stories of each head

hanging from your fine-worked saddles,

for I wish e to hear such battles.”

The Fae lord gestured to a knight

and he dismounted, at child’s height,

taking down, then, an ogre’s head

from his lord’s saddle, splattered red,

and the head had tusks, sharp and long,

and its jaws were big, its chin strong,

but all lay lax in that dead face,

life gone from it, without a trace.

“I slew this monster near the bridge

that extends from stone ridge to ridge

for he preyed upon our kindred,

his hunger great, yet now ended.”

The knight returned the trophy, now,

and sought another, whose broad brow

was maned with marshy hair that hung

blackish green, and a limp pale tongue

between needle teeth, its long snout

like a horse, its horns curving out.

“Here is the pookah, a deadly mount

who haunted the swamp’s bracken fount,

dragging drunkards into the peat

and tearing them apart to eat.”

The third head was of an eagle,

but giant, golden, beak regal.

“And here, at last, is the griffin,”

said the lord, and, with a sniff, then,

told of how the foul fowl laid claim

to all his flocks and all his game,

and so the lord had set a trap,

baiting the beast till, with a snap,

he brought it down with an arrow

which pieced shrieking through the air so

that the beast fell at once, quite done,

though the quills still shone like the sun.

“My only regret,” said the lord,

as he sighed and sheathed his stained sword,

“is having only trophies three

whereas four would better please me

for my trophy hall has such space

that it would gain from one more face.

But enough of such things,” he said.

“Tell me how he came to be dead.”

The blacksmith grinned like a demon.

He said, “By his ill-spilt semen

upon that which was fairly mine—

my wife!  So I showed him the line

between good and bad, life and death,

and the lecture cost him his breath.

As for my wife—she is chained

within my house, our vows profaned,

yet even now I work my bellows

to make right of this.  Trust, fellows,

that this scarlet letter shall bleed

from another maiden, whose breed

is made of the finest points known,

and has iron in place of bone.”

The Fae lord looked at the maiden

which the blacksmith made, so laden

with spikes where her heart should have been,

more monstrous than any such kin

of ogre, griffin, or such ilk

nourished by wicked blood-laced milk.

“She is my wife,” the blacksmith said,

“as is that faithless girl whose head

and heart were won by Love’s deceit,

but my good wife shall drink replete,

for the faithless wife shall so slake

the steadfast wife, for her mistake,

and by merit of blood provide

from bed to bed, and bride to bride.”

He worked the hot, wrathful bellows,

the embers of orange-yellows

flaring like fitful flies of fire

or, perhaps, flecks of vain-desire.

He said, “To me her only worth

was insomuch as field to serf:

a thing to be plowed in such time

for hale harvest in proper clime.

But she harbored fancies bygone

with this rogue, whom I have high-drawn.

As if the heart should rule such things

when we know gold rules even kings,

and I have amassed a great hoard

through my flames, by horseshoe and sword.

Verily, I have grown steel plates

for whole armies, helms for pates,

and such great horns like a ram’s crown

that could blow ancient mountains down.

Should I not revenge myself

against fickle wife, lordly elf?”

The blacksmith grinned, very much pleased

and then laughed loudly, till he wheezed.

The Fae lord smiled, too, though grimly,

and then he hopped down, quite nimbly,

from his horse, silver sword in hand

and though short, his eyes held command

of all they gazed on, man or Fae,

his decrees none could disobey.

“I thank you,” he said, “for your truth,

and I thank you for more, forsooth,

as I longed to slay once more before

returning to my hillside door,

and here I have found at long last

a dragon whose flame hath cast

horrid shadows of deeds foul done

and deeds yet done beneath the sun.

Thus I have found my fourth trophy.”

And no sooner than lord quoth, he

struck head clean off the man’s shoulders

whereupon his banner-holders

fetched it up from the bloody lawn

(the mouth slack-jawed, as if to yawn)

and hung it on their lord’s horse

thereafter freeing bride, of course,

from her shackles, then cut down, too,

her lover from his gabled view.

The cock’s crow heralded first light,

so the Fae company took flight

and vanished as dew in the dawn—

like mist from fabled Avalon.

Bit And Bridal

 We stood together, arrayed in a circle—much like the standing stones around us—and in the center of our circle was the dead horse, its head still bleeding from the gaping bullet hole that cratered the center of its long forehead.  Its tongue hung slack and pale between its twisted teeth.

 “Ready the blade, Matthew,” the master said.

 I did as I was bidden, sharpening the ax on the whetstone and discerning the fine gleam of the blade by moonlight as the strokes spit sparks.  The sibilance of stone on steel unnerved me, but I knew better than to disobey the master, especially now, when the lich moon was rising toward its zenith and hour of the Worm wheeled Cerberus above the standing stones.

 “Make ready the saddle!” the master commanded.

 Two servants hurried to lay the saddle upon the dead beast’s back.  The master upended his bottle of brandy, meanwhile, downing the rest of its burning amber courage to help him see the ritual to completion.  The bottle dry, he sighed angrily, breathlessly, and hurled it against a standing stone, shattering the glass as his chest heaved with mad resolve and contrary fear; desperate rage and mortal terror.  He turned to me like a man invoking his daimon.

 “Enough!” he said.  He staggered toward me, falling on his knees, his brow profuse with sweat.  “It will cleave true with keenness of blade or keenness of damnation, one or the other.”

 The master extended his hand upon the stone altar, his fist closed except for the ringfinger, the latter apart from the others and still encircled with the silver token of his marriage.  He had not taken it off for two years, nor ever would.  Whether widower or bridegroom yet again, he would not doff the silver wedding ring that bound him to his beloved wife, Filianore, now lost in the shades of the realm beyond.

 “Strike quickly!” he commanded.  “Strike true!”

 I put aside the whetstone and readied the ax in my hand with a tight grip, a careful aim, and a long hesitation.

 “Damn you, Matthew!” the master shouted.  “Be done with it!”

 I brought the crescent blade down upon the master’s ringfinger.  The blade made a rather satisfactory butcher’s sound, as should be heard in a shop when a butcher dresses a pig.  The finger split from the hand, parting a hair’s width from the silver ring itself.  Master cried out, but it seemed more a cry of exultation than pain or regret.  He then took up the bleeding ringfinger, and the ring, and hurried to the dead horse.  Kneeling down, the master spoke a few words which I did not understand.  It was a different language.  He spoke softly, urgently, then pressed the severed finger into the horse’s mouth, as one would a bit for a bridle.  At first, nought seemed to happen.  The servants and I watched with abated breath, horror as wild in each face as hope was in the master’s.  Quite suddenly the beast’s slack mouth tightened its teeth, clamping blindly upon the finger and the ring.  The lax tongue lolled to life, spiraling like a searching slug until it had found the bloody end of the dismembered finger.  It proceeded to lap at the bloody digit.  The horse shuddered, then whinnied, and rose most unnaturally from its puddle of blood and filth, standing at attention on its four hooves.  We backed away as one; all except the master who exulted.

 “By Judas’s coin, it worked!” he shouted triumphantly.  Then, in a lower voice, he said, “Strap the saddle tightly upon the beast’s flanks.”

 No one moved forth to do as bidden.  We exchanged glances as war-time compatriots might when one unwittingly spoke the name of a savage battle none were meant to speak of again.

 “Secure the saddle!” the master shouted.

 We would not.

 “Craven and callow, the lot of you!” he shouted, then secured the straps himself, his four-fingered hand fumbling with leather and blood in slippery disunity.

 The horse meanwhile stood silently, tonguing the master’s severed finger, but otherwise it did nothing.  The hole in its forehead revealed the cooled mush of its oozing brains.  To look upon it was to look upon the frailties and treacheries of flesh, and to marvel at the abominations rendered unto it by the despair of the soul.

 The saddle secure now, the master pulled himself up onto the undead beast’s back.  There were no reins, nor was there need for them.

 “To Filianore, you diabolical creature!” the master cried.  “Bring me to my beloved on the Plutonian shore!”

 The horse hobbled at first, its limbs trembling with reawakened life, then hastened into an unnatural gallop, the motion of its legs graceless and mechanical, like a puppet worked by inept hands and slackened strings.  But by strides, and by infernal powers not meant for the scope of Man, the pale horse rose from the earth and treaded the nocturnal air, rising and rising into that blasphemous sky with its lich moon and baleful stars, rising into the air like a wandering wraith and carrying the master to lands unknown to all but the most damned of men.

 We waited for hours.  It was yet not dawn and we sat in the ring of standing stones, not knowing whether we wished the master to return or not.  The sun’s warmth remained as a sullen orange glow beyond the trees.  The chill of night lingered, alongside the dew, and a fog tumbled groggily with the nightmare phantoms of what had been dreamt that night before.

 We saw the silhouettes through that ghostly fog; gray shadows half-glimpsed by eyes and half-dismissed by reason.  The horse emerged first, its head yet cratered with the fury of the shell.  Then the figure emerged beside the horse, stumbling as if a drunkard fresh from the tavern.  It was the master, though now his dark hair was whiter than the fog itself; his face gaunt and wrinkled too much for a man even of three decades henceforth.  Yet, the gleam of mad triumph illuminated his sunken eyes.

 And then there was Filianore.  She swayed with the lethargic amble of the horse, tilting slowly left and then right, left and then right, near enough to falling off on either side, yet she did not fall.  She yet wore the white dress in which she had been buried, only now the veil was sallow, the dress stained with filth and rot and the ruin of the grave.  But it was her eyes that transfixed all upon whom they gazed.  For there were no eyes in her head: only empty black sockets in which worms writhed in cloyed stupefaction.

 And upon a pale horse she came.  Upon a pale horse she came for us all.