Heartwood

thornpetal

He thrums a dead druid’s drumbeat
upon the sadly humming heartwood,
the sap dried by the nearby hearth’s heat
while he stares out from the shadow of his hood.

Once upon a time she was a desirable dryad
upon which he could carve no lasting claim,
for her heart was triply-trunked, a branching triad
that grew in many directions without shame.

Throughout the abbey she had ensnared men
with her pink petals and fulsome fruits,
tempting his brothers away from Heaven
and suckling from them with her roots.

Beneath the shadows and the heavy cowl
he smiles sardonically, rapping his knuckles
upon the length of her body—her wooden scowl
etched harsh…deep…as he softly chuckles.

He had not resented her for being a goddess;
rather, he cared little for the souls of others
and he did not care if he was lost or godless,
anymore than had his wayward brothers.

No, she had rejected him, and his rut,
when he came to her to lust unto his fill,
and so he took up an ax and thereby cut
her pale bark so that the red sap did spill.

Now only he remains at that cloistered retreat,
and he takes his time to avenge his wrong,
her heart resounding with the rhythmic beat
of his own hollow, lifeless, unfeeling song.

Ghillie Dhu

GHILLIE DHU

It was the first of Spring when lonely little Juliette began writing letters to herself and placing them under mossy rocks and in the rotten crowns of dead tree trunks and in the intermingling branches of the forest bordering her family’s farm. These letters were often simple of nature and pretty of hand. They said things like “Have a splendid day,” or “May the sun shine be bright in your heart, and the shade be cool on your head,” which was a popular saying in the village. She would even write, most indulgently, “Rainbows above and flowers below, grow nothing but love in all that you sow.” These messages this fair-haired girl wrote in whatever little spare time was afforded to her between chores, for the girl desperately longed for a playmate of her own.
And then, on the morning of March 32nd, while going to fetch these letters she wrote to herself (just after milking the cows and just before feeding the chickens), Juliette found that someone had taken her letters she had written and had replaced them with letters in a strange, scratchy hand. She was shocked, and delightedly so, but also confused, for in each answer there was but just one little riddle that, once woven together, meant so much more:
“Where the birch trees seem to lurch
and the owls pause in poise to perch,
come find me beneath the old oak tree,
for there you will see what games may be.”
Juliette knew of this old oak tree among the birches. It was but a five minute walk from where she presently stood. She started toward the spot at once, but then hesitated, thinking of all of the dreary chores she had left to do before breakfast and how angry her parents would be if she skirted them. Nonetheless, the desire for a playmate won out in her hopping heart and so she walked deeper into the forest, seeking the old oak tree among the white-skinned birches.
When she arrived at the oak tree she saw a little boy of her own size and age, but strange of feature. He had light green skin, like the leaves of saplings, and green hair with tendrils growing around his temples, gemmed with berries only birds may eat. A thin layer of pollen coated his hair and shoulders like dandruff. He wore leaves and moss around his waist. As she came closer she found that he smelled of a forest after a generous rainfall.
“Hello,” she said. She sneezed, then laughed. “My name is Juliette.” She did a little curtsy, lifting the frills of her dress. “What’s your name?”
The boy smiled, showing teeth bucked like a rabbit’s, and bowed.
“One name is as any name the same,
but Ghillie Dhu is the name I presently claim.”
“Ghillie Dhu?” Juliette said. “I like that name. May I call you Ghill?”
“My filly may what a silly sally do
for it is as lovely to say Ghill as Ghillie Dhu.”
Juliette thought on this for a moment, then smiled as it dawned on her that he had given her permission to call him what she wanted. He was all rhyme and mirth, she thought happily.
“I am nine years old. How old are you?”
Ghillie Dhu’s tawny fawn ears twitched, as if in amusement to hear such childish questions.
“As old as the forest and as constant as the hills,
young as Sunday’s rest and as wandering as the rills.”
“You look like you’re nine, too,” Juliette said, helpfully. “Do you like to play games?”
The young boy dressed in moss and leaves and poison berries smiled.
“Oh yes, I must confess
that I like best the games that test.”
Juliette’s rounded brow creased innocently and she put her fists on her hips, squinting one eye in confusion. “What kind of games do you like?”
“Like a squirrel whirling in a world of leaves
I play my games, whether it pleases or it grieves.”
Juliette did not want to understand the particulars of the statement, only that Ghillie Dhu wanted to play games, which was a sufficient enough reason to be overjoyed.
“Oh, I always wanted someone to play with!” she cried in glee. “All I have on the farm are cows and chickens and they are no fun at all!”
“Then a game we will play,” Ghillie Dhu said, “unto the darkening of the day,
come what may, whether you will or will it not to stay.”
He held up a letter in a hand mottled like a fawn’s hide. The letter looked just like the ones in Juliette’s hands.
“What’s that?” Juliette asked.
“The game at hand,” he said, “in my hand,
but yours at your command.”
“What’s a letter got to do with any game?”
Ghillie Dhu grinned, pointed at his own temple— wreathed in poison berries—and then in some wayward direction.
“As a church sermoned by a roguish unseelie elf, I’ve done gone and lost me’self.”
“Lost yourself? How can you lose yourself?”
The boy in moss and leaves and poisoned berries shook his head, scattering pollen in a gentle shower.
“That is neither here nor there, land nor sea nor air.”
“Fine,” Juliette huffed, becoming impatient. “What am I supposed to do with the letter, then?”
“If ye’ will be my friend tonight, then take this letter and set me right.”
He held the letter out to Juliette and she took it without hesitation. She was about to open it when the forest boy quickly snatched it away.
“Nay, bonnie lass, ye shall never read
this important letter of mine to mine, ye heed?”
Juliette frowned, flabbergasted, but, wanting so desperately to play this mysterious game, nodded after a moment of consideration. “Okay,” she said. “I won’t read it.” She took it carefully as he held it out to her this time.
The little forest boy grinned again, the rabbit whiskers on his cheeks fanning out. He nodded, shaking pollen everywhere in a cloud that made Juliette sneeze again.
“Gladdened to my heart, I am, that ye are game
for the game of all games, known by the Huntigowk name.”
The word struck Juliette as strange and unfamiliar, and ultimately as gibberish. But since she thought most old children’s games had gibberish names, it seemed a very appropriate name. Furthermore, she liked it, even if she didn’t know how to play or what the rules were. She asked about these, and Ghillie Dhu answered.
“Of rules, there be many, and yet none be at all,
as to how ye play, may well ask why hatchlings must fall.”
“That’s rather vague,” Juliette said. Yet, she just shrugged and was happy to have a game to play, and a playmate to play it with.
“Now ye must go to where the waters willn’t flow
and there ye will find me, whom ye yet know and don’t know.”
This said, a sudden breeze snaked its way through the trees and, upon touching the little boy, dissolved him to nothing more than leaves and moss and berries and pollen, all settled onto the forest floor as if they always had been thereon strewn.
“Where the waters won’t flow?” Juliette pondered aloud, then sneezed. She sniffled and wiped her nose on her sleeve. “But it isn’t Winter now. None of the creeks are frozen! Even the ponds move because of the wind.”
She looked down at the moss and its thick mane. A frog crawled across it, dark green and large. In its mouth was a mouse, still struggling while half-swallowed. With one final jerk of its head, the frog engulfed the mouse and sat contented.
“The bog!” Juliet exclaimed with sudden revelation. “That’s what he meant!”
The bog was a few miles away, yet Juliette walked the trek quickly, without a single thought of her farm or family falling behind her and the playful clutter of the forest. She had a playmate now, and a game, and she was devoted to these two things singlemindedly. She did not stop to ask the weeping washerwoman why she cried at the waterfall. Nor did she dare walk near that strange horse with its goggling eyes and wet mane. Nor did she aid the man of bones in finding his sharp teeth. She cared for little else except the game. She did not even care that it was nearly lunchtime when she finally arrived at the bog and saw her playmate knee-deep in the peat. Nor did she care that behind him arched a perfectly rounded hill that stretched from one side of the bog to the other, partially submerged in the peat and duckweed and lilypads like the corpulent belly of some dead bog giant.
The little boy in the bog said, “Who goes there with so little care?”
“You know me,” she said, smiling. “I am your Juliette.”
“What a dare for someone so fair to travel so far!
Or is it a snare that puts ye where ye are?”
“I saw no snared rabbits,” she said, blinking away her perplexity. “I have a letter for you.”
She walked to the edge of the peat, grabbed hold of a leaning elm with one hand, and outstretched the other to pass the letter to the boy in the bog. He took it and she pulled herself back upright again, and just in the nick of time, too, for the elm was upended from the fickle soil from which it grew and fell over into the bog with a sigh. She dropped the letters he had given her earlier and they, too, fell into the bog. The bog swallowed all.
“Oh fiddlesticks!” she said, and instantly slapped her hand to her moue of a mouth, lest her mother and father suddenly appear and flog her good for swearing.
“Those letters are of no material matter,” said the boy, watching the other letters sink,
“for the message of concern is in this, the latter.”
The boy in the bog unfolded and read the letter, nodded (dislodging a snail from his ear), then quickly folded the letter again.
Meanwhile Juliette looked at Ghillie Dhu for the first time with eyes unclouded by excitement or exhaustion. She saw that he was different. He was shorter and squatter, and fatter, too, like a frog, and bowlegged. His eyes bulged from their sockets as if engorged with putrid water, and he was darker of hair and of skin than he was near the oak tree. Much of his wet, slimy skin was now patched in morassy vegetation. He looked as young, but as he grinned his opossum teeth at her there ran wrinkles in his dark, moss-mottled skin. Around him was wrapped a clingy wet robe of lichen and toadstools. Snails and earthworms writhed in his hair. His tongue, so very long and pink, dangled from his impishly round face with its toady jowls. When he spoke his voice was guttural and resonant.
“Me dear sprightly elf, ” he said, “I must have plumb forgotten me self
for I was going by some other name on some other shelf.”
The little girl wiped her muddy hands on her frock and frills. “And what name would that be?”
“If it pleases, while in this swampy muck,
I shall be that age-old adage, Puck.”
“Puck?” Juliette said, trying not to stare at him. “As you say, Puck. I have two names, too. Juliet Fooley. What is next in our game?”
Puck Ghillie Dhu hobbled forward through the peat and handed the letter to Juliette Fooley. The bog did not slosh or ripple as his rotund body waded through it, but remained solidly flat and undisturbed beneath its heavy decay.
He handed the letter over to her and she took it, trying not to gag on his rotten stench.
“Go ye’ to where the crowned rivals joust
in the courtyard where they are out to oust.”
Juliette pondered this oblique riddle, then gasped when Puck abruptly sunk beneath the peat, the vegetation spreading thin across the bog as if he never was.
“Courtyard and crowns?” Juliette said, confused. “Am I to seek Arthur and his knights of Camelot, or some fairy knights in the company of Queen Mab?”
As if in answer to Juliette’s question there rose from amidst that thick layer of decaying vegetation a small skull, peeking through as if in a game of hide and go seek. In its hollow eye sockets there squirmed nightcrawlers entangled violently with one another. The fawn did not mind, for its days of minding were far behind it.
“The glade!” Juliette cried, as if struck with a giddy spell. “Where the bucks fight!”
Away she hurried at once, for the deer glade was very far and she had to make haste if she was to pass the bog and arrive there before suppertime. Unlike lunch and breakfast, Juliette did not forget supper, for she was sorely famished by now, as her stomach was eager to remind her. Yet, she told herself she need not worry about supper, for it would be always waiting for her, warm and welcoming upon the fireplace when she should return. And as for chores, well, it would do no harm to neglect the farm one day in a year. Her parents might flog her, but she thought it would be punishment received with little regret, especially after this delightful escapade.
Juliette sang to herself as she went. She felt like singing, for she was happy and because it distracted her from the hunger in her belly.
“A turn of the stick, a burn of the wick,
a spurn of the prick, and learn to be strict.”
She slowed her hasty pace and ceased her singing. A new scene opened within the woods. She saw a beautiful maiden whose lily-white arms cradled a rusted suit of armor. Within the armor a shriveled man lay, blind with love. In a field of flowers they sat, and the maiden sang to the armor, much more than to the man, and the man lay in both ecstacy and agony that he should be built of mortal stuff. Behind them there was heaped a flower-tangled pile of ancient armor leaning against one another, some bodied with bones and some with dust; all long since rusted.
Further along, where the forest motes danced in the beams of light, Juliet heard flutes piping and bells ringing and felt the sting of acorns thrown from above. Her eyes skittered from bole to bower to bough, spotting only flickers of diaphanous wings in infrequent sunlight.
“Nary a fairy was ever merry,” Juliette recited, then continued on.
The sun was nearer to the horizon as the trees parted to reveal the hoof-stomped glade. The wind breathed harder and colder, teasing her with its dreadful promises. Shadows stretched long and deepened while mists rose from their cold mouths. Dappled grass glistened as if gilded, then cooled dark in the gloaming’s gloom.
Like sheep the mists herded themselves around her, expecting feed. She kept to her heading and came to the clearing. Once there, in the glade, she saw her friend, Puck Ghillie Dhu. She called out to him and he turned, raking the overhanging branches with his antlers.
“Ye address me as a familiar while masked as a stranger,” he said,
“Present yourself, heart to hart, lest you seek danger.”
“I am ever your Juliette,” Juliette said, still somewhat winded from the long hike and the deep hunger. “I am playing a game with you, Puck Ghillie Dhu, and have brought this letter as you told me to.”
The boy walked toward her on hoofed legs like a deer’s, nor was he truly a boy now. Nearing her, his shadow showed how much he had grown since last they met, for it unfurled itself over her from his new height like a banner upon a turret. He was barrel-chested and had forearms as thick as a goat’s thigh. She handed him the letter and waited as he read it. She looked at him, and admired him, even if he scared her a little now with his size and his features.
Sharp antlers jutted out of his head, felted at the base and with sandy brown bone branching outward and upward. Big honey-locust thorns were tangled in his hair. He smelled heavily of animal sweat and dung and musk and wore about his waist a kilt of prickly weeds and nettles and barbs. On his fingertips were hawkish talons, crimson-stained, and his tail was that of a polecat, and his dark brown skin was ruffled and scarred with many fights. A curly tuft of hair dangled from his chin, nettles and catkins tangled in the tresses. Her eyes watered as she stood near him; her eyelids stung and swelled. Still, she had a playmate to play a game with, and that was all that mattered to her as the sun slunk away beneath the Western side of the forest. Now the sky was bleeding like a cut hide hung up next to a fireplace to dry. The red liquids ran fast, then blackened.
“I had forgotten me name,” he said, “and me birth claim,
but with this little dame I will make full on the promise of the game.”
He smiled, and his teeth were those of a wildcat’s.
“I don’t know if I can play much longer,” Juliette said, her stomach rumbling. “I am hungry.”
The boy—that was not a boy—just smiled. Juliette grew uneasy. His eyes were eyes as black as a stag’s, and as impassive.
“Can we finish playing tomorrow?”
“But ye have come nearly to the end,” he said,
“and never need worry beyond tomorrow’s bend.”
“Really?”
“As I am known as Pan, and Puck and Ghillie Dhu,
know ye now that I speak to ye true.”
He returned the letter to Juliette and Juliette stared down at it. There was a little cut on her hand now, made by one of his talons, dripping droplets as red as the sunset. He spoke with a voice hoarse and thick, not at all mellifluous as it was when she first met him.
“Where the earth yawns satisfied in its appetite
the womb welcomes all to sleep through endless night.”
Pan stretched down on all fours, then, and went galloping away, twisting upon himself and tearing himself apart unto a multitude of animals that fled and paid chase to one another, this way and that.
Juliette watched the animals disappear into the woods. She then rubbed her aching belly and found it hard to concentrate, or to even remember what the riddle was. Her eyes stung, her nose was red with sneezing, and she was sore all over; especially her feet. She had walked so long, today.
Just when she was about to turn back and head home— hungry and frustrated with herself— she saw something. It was a snake slithering along the glade. A young rabbit was in its mouth. The snake carried its prey toward a small cairn Juliette had not noticed before. It slid on its belly with all of the patience that a certain meal provided, then slunk beneath the stacked rock edifice.
“The cave,” Juliette said quietly.
It was that time that good children should be in bed and that bad children could be misled. Juliette started to feel drowsy. The fatigue of the day, and the hunger, and the game all settled upon her like many heavy quilts weighing her down and begging her to sleep. Yet, she pushed on, spurred by the excitement of the game and its nearing end. She told herself she could sleep afterward, perhaps even lingering in bed tomorrow morning and neglecting her chores again. After all, she had neglected her chores today and the world did not fall to ruin. What did it matter that the chickens were not fed or the cows went unmilked? She pressed on, deeper and deeper into the forest in search of the cave.
A terrible wind came from the East that was not a wind. Juliette heard it before she felt it, and so felt it in her heart and blood before she could feel it on her skin. It was a choral moan of lost souls. Icemelt quivered in her heart and flowed through her veins. She knew the sound of the Sluagh, for she had heard it the night her grandfather died. Her mother and father had fought it from taking her grandfather’s soul the only way they knew how: by closing the windows and doors to their home while the elderly man died in his bed. The Sluagh was a terrible thing to hear, and even worse to behold. As it slithered through the air, seeking Juliette in her quest for her newfound friend, she saw its multitude of spirits all openmouthed with moaning and pain. So many faces in a breeze— like a murder of crows tumbling over each other in a violent eddy. It encircled her for a whirl, as if in anticipation, and then, seeking dead or dying prey elsewhere, left her to her game.
The cave yawned wide before her, blacker than night above. He saw her long before she saw him. He was staring at her as she walked toward him, his hairy back to her and his neck twisted around backwards, like an owl’s. His yellow-lobed eyes burned wildly in the twilit darkness of the forest. The look on his face made her stop walking, halting her like a rabbit halts before the fox. She could not move, save for her eyes which darted up and down him like squirrels up and down a tree . An ursine mane of fur ran from his head to his tail. He was grinning, and the wolfish fangs gleamed between the retracting gums. The pelts and hides hanging around him stank, and many of them were hairless and pink and wet with scarlet. They had human faces that moaned wide and silently.
“I…I have a letter for you,” Juliette said.
He looked stretched, like a shadow at dusk, gangly and lithe, elm-limbed from joint to joint, and his gaunt stomach was riddled with trenches of ribs. Withered to waste by Winter he was, and yet he had a fierce power as he stood outside the cave, welcoming her within that darkened womb of the earth. He seemed to fill up the cave, its inner darkness, and then the outer darkness of the darkening sky.
With a clawed paw he took the letter from Juliette, glanced down at it as if he knew what it said before looking at it, and then returned it to Juliette. The cave seemed to expand and contract behind him, and Juliette quavered.
“What now?” she asked. “Is the game finished?”
His voice was a low growl, like a beast wanting blood.
“Down has come the life-giving sun,” he said,
“as the shadows darken and bleed and run
here to there, from horizon to horizon,
and so, yes, our little game is done.”
“It’s over?” Juliette said, surprised. “Who won?”
The beastly man stretched taller, looming high— as high as the night beyond the cave.
Juliette gasped. “So…you won?” she whispered, barely above her breath.
He grinned down at Juliette, showing his wolfish fangs and his burning eyes. He said nothing.
“Ghillie Dhu,” Juliette mumbled.
He said nothing, but loomed larger.
“Ghillie Dhu?” she asked, pleaded.
He said nothing, but loomed larger still.
“Ghill? Puck?”
He said nothing, but loomed larger and branched out all around her.
“Pan? Please.”
“Oh my dear foolish little one,” said the cave, “with each of those names I am done,
for now I am but Far Darrig, which all good children shun.”
“Far Darrig,” Juliette said. The name was familiar, though she could not remember from where or what. “Who are you?” she asked. “I’ve heard your name before. From a nursery rhyme, I think.”
He only grinned more widely, and loomed more largely.
“How did it go?” she asked aloud. She then remembered:
“‘Hey bonnie girl, which way is home?
(Red Man wants to skip along too)
Hey bonnie girl, why do you roam?
(Red Man wants to shadow you)
My bonnie girl, you know better
than to let the Red Man get his cape wetter
by dipping it in the ink of you,
so beware of Far Darrig and his letter.”
Far Darrig, she thought.
The Red Man.
Juliette turned and fled. He did not chase her. He did not have to. He was all around her. He was the forest and the earth and the cave and the swamp. He was the eyes in the darkness that watched her run, and the creatures that scattered before her. She was in his slowly yawning jaws all along. She was lost in the woods, and the woods was his gullet.
Clouds had stolen over the starry sky casually, like a hunter sure of his quarry, and now Juliette could not tell which way she had come. In the last wink of moonlight, she opened the letter and read what it said.
“Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile.”
She collapsed on the ground, weeping.
His voice spoke all around her, in the rustle of leaves and the howl of wolves, and every other sound that haunts the wilderness.
“By the game ye have willingly bet
I shall have ye, my Juliette.”
“I want to go home,” she whimpered.
“Had you stayed you would not have strayed,” he said. “The unbridled wild is no place for a child.”
“Please let me go!” she moaned. “My parents will be worried.”
“Nay, vanish such thoughts from your foolish head
for even now a changeling sleeps in your bed.”
Juliette pulled at her hair desperately, weeping. “My parents will know the difference!”
“A difference, indeed, and one most welcome too,
for the changeling is a good child, unlike you.”
“I am not bad,” she said, trembling among the dead leaves. “I just wanted to play today! I wanted to play with a friend! I wanted to have fun in the woods, away from the village and the farm and everyone telling me what to do!”
“In the woods there is much fun to be had,
but by whom is the question, little girl gone bad.”
Far Darrig opened his mouth wide all around her. It was as a cave fanged with trees and tongued with a bog and as black and bottomless as the night sky. Juliette ran again, but it did no good. Wherever she ran, she ran toward the giant mouth. It was as inescapable as the wide, woeful wilderness and its ancient shadows were always eager for feast and for fun.
***
Juliette awoke in the woods. She sat up, shivering, and rubbed her eyes. Glancing around she saw through the trees that it was yet morning. The morning mists were a herd of sheep rummaging across the forest floor. Juliette stood up and saw that she was still dressed in her night gown. She must have went sleepwalking, she told herself, as she was apt to do from time to time.
“All a nightmare?” she said to herself.
The tittering of a bird unnerved her and so she quickly stood and returned to the path leading toward home…
…toward home and its endless chores and boredom and her desperate need for a playmate.
As she turned, however, her eyes alighted on a little figure in a red coat and cap hobbling away into the far-flung mists. It turned and watched her, waiting with a sharp grin on its wizened boy’s face. He gestured for her to follow.
She did not.

Shirikodama (Or The Finer Points of Politics)

 

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(Dedicated, sincerely, to the turtle-man himself, Mitch McConnell.)

It was in the midst of Japan’s Edo period that the musician Mochimitsu traveled to the Shiga Highlands, looking to hone his skills as a flutist while also seeking patronage generous enough to sustain him for a time. Mochimitsu was a young man then, and had not grown to be the legendary artist that later years would prove him to be. But he was hale and hearty and he stopped by a small village on Lake Onuma to seek rest and food. Onuma Lake was a beautiful expanse of water. The village beside it was a modest huddle of mud huts with straw thatch roofs, and its people were fishing families known to be industrious and peaceful. They had not much to offer for Mochimitsu’s songs except fish and rice, which he gladly received with gratitude. At night he played his songs for them beneath the stars, and the piping of his hichiriki— or double reed flute— pleased all ears, echoing from the birch trees and maples to the slumbering summit of Oshima Komaga-take.
Fortune was not well, however, in the Shiga Highlands. Heavy rains soon fell, preventing Mochimitsu from continuing his journey. He stayed with a different fishing family each night, their generosity granting him a good meal and a corner in their dry huts. Soon, however, the heavy rains rioted upon the land. Ponds and lakes brimmed and spilled. Lake Onuma flooded terribly with excess and a strange, bubbling madness. The village priestess claimed it was the work of demons that lived on the islands in the center of Lake Onuma. The floodwaters rose up around the village, melting the mud walls and washing away the straw roofs. The villagers swam to their boats, or clung to makeshift rafts that they assembled in the panicked hours as the waters destroyed their homes. Some villagers did not survive. Many among the elderly perished, their bodies floating on the Lake’s distending surface. Mochimitsu was fortunate. When the waters rushed in among the huts, he had been out of the hut, relieving himself. Realizing the danger, he secured a boat of his very own right before the frenzied heft of the floodwaters rolled against village, smashing the remaining huts and killing many. Mochimitsu floated on the boat for hours that night, looking for survivors as an unnatural mist rose around the lake. It was so thick that a perpetual twilight subsumed the Shiga Highlands.
Mochimitsu sought land, but found none forthcoming. He had no skills as a boatman. He was confused by the fetid mist, and lost his heading as he paddled with his bare hands. Circles upon circles he scrawled upon the forgetful waters, chasing his own waves. As a consequence, he saved no one. When he finally found land, he frantically paddled toward it. Yet, he found himself tricked. It was not the mainland, but instead a series of islands in the middle of Lake Onuma. There were figures upon those islands, and so he drifted toward them.
The priestess had been correct. Demons had conjured the rains and bid the lake to swell. They were nasty turtle men— known as Kappas—and they hungered for the souls of humans. Mochimitsu saw their silhouettes in the mist from afar. They gurgled and giggled with gluttonous delight, dragging the bodies of men, women, and children onto their islands and feasting upon their shirikodamas; the fabled life energy in a human’s anus. They ate of them with their long tongues, the terrible sight nauseating Mochimitsu as he watched the turtle-men feed on filth and shame and death. They had no morals. They were vicious, heartless creatures that relished in their corruption.
Seeing their atrocities, Mochimitsu gave an involuntary gasp of terror. He clamped his hands to his mouth, but it was too late. The Kappas turned their attention to him, all as one, abandoning the drowned, bloated corpses of their previous victims to seek fresher spoils. They dove into the water and swam faster beneath the burden of their foul shells than Mochimitsu ever could hope to swim in his naked skin. Helpless in his boat, Mochimitsu took up his reed flute one last time, puckered his lips upon it and began to play what he assumed would be his final song. He played with the full strength of his lungs and his heart, harnessing a melody that would have made tengu weep. It was to be his magnum opus; his perfect cherry blossom blooming in the ears of gods and demons alike.
The Kappas halted as they heard his song, floating around the boat with their beak-faced heads half-submerged while their red eyes watched him through the mist. Their green, pointy ears perked up, calmly swaying with the notes of his song. Mochimitsu did not look at them. He closed his eyes against the black hairs around the concave tonsure of their skulls; their long, unspooling tongues with their barbed tips. Mochimitsu played for what must have been an hour, his thoughts focused in the pure, radiant form of his song. It kept the depraved demons at bay. They could not move, mesmerized by his skill. The rains stopped falling altogether. The waves unwound and the sun burned the remaining mist away. Still, the Kappas remained transfixed, listening to Mochimitsu’s prowess.
At length, a boat of fisherman came by. They approached surreptitiously, armed with long-handled spears. They were hungry for vengeance, seeking the creatures that had defiled and destroyed their loved ones. While Mochimitsu kept the Kappas enthralled, the fishermen impaled the misbegotten demons through their skulls, spilling the waters they kept in their heads. They then chopped them up and fetched their violated dead from the accursed islands. Mochimitsu was hailed as a hero that day. Henceforth, his legend grew as he ventured from village to village. He now found employment by ensorcelling the loathsome turtle-men so that warriors might more easily dispatch them. He gained a good reputation and saved many lives.

Many years later Mochimitsu became the flutist at the Emperor’s palace. He did well in court, as both a musician and as a man of integrity, and was deft at not only the flute, but at imperial politics as well. The Emperor respected Mochimitsu’s opinion, for he was often wise in his thoughts, but also slow to reveal them, whereas others were overeager to spread their hasty opinions. Many nobles resented Mochimitsu, for he was a lowborn flutist, whereas they were born of esteemed blood. They plotted against him. They often attempted to pit him against the Emperor with rumors and gossip. They planted poisonous seeds all around him.
But it was to no avail.
One day a nobleman asked Mochimitsu how he came to be so skilled at handling petty nobles. How, the nobleman asked, could he survive when so many sought to undermine him for the sake of endearing themselves to the Emperor? Mochimitsu held his flute in one hand, contemplating his flute, and this question, for a long time. The flute was both straight and narrow. His answer to the question, thus, needed to be both straight and narrow to be true.
“I have spent many years besting such creatures with my own song,” the old man said. “I know how to handle such creatures. I know how to defend myself against turtle-men who spend all of their time with their tongues up other people’s asses.”

The Price

The roof flew from the barn and somersaulted down the prairie like a tiller blade, churning up earth and flashing with the sharp sheen of its tin. From the front porch, at a quarter mile’s distance, Maggie watched the tin roof frolic in the March-matted field. The barn dissolved shortly afterwards, the bedeviled twister unraveling its old wooden planks in a spiral of uplifting torque. The tornado’s power overawed Maggie as it undid everything her father and grandfather and great-grandfather had created throughout the decades, erasing their hard work within a matter of seconds. She felt the same winds whip her brown pigtails wildly against her face. The unthinking violence of it all thrilled her, every nerve in her thirteen year old body tingling and vibrantly alive.
Maggie’s momma and daddy had gone to town to buy seeds for the planting season. She was alone with her baby brother, Mike. She could hear his wails over the howling of the winds. She wished he would be silent for once. His shrill voice reminded her of the children at school, all screaming and wailing and shouting for attention. She despised them. She despised her brother. She despised her parents for leaving her alone with him.
She marveled at the tornado.
“The March Hare,” she said to herself, though she could not hear herself over the howling of the winds and the wailing of her brother.
The tornado drilled onward, a massive column of spiraling eddies stripping apart silos and granaries as it continued its rampage toward the old farmhouse. Her baby brother’s wails rose, like a saw on sheet metal. Their farmhouse had no cellar or basement. She knew the tornado could easily tear the house up from its foundation and unfurl it like a moth-eaten blanket across the field. There was no escape. The tornado did as it pleased, unconcerned with trivial human matters.
Frowning, Maggie stepped off the porch and walked out across the field. Her white skirt flapped as if a bird desperate to fly away. She pressed it flat against her legs with her hands— not because of feminine dignity or shame, but because it irritated her with its panic—then she continued walking toward the tornado. Her pigtails whipped her face harder, as if flagellating her for her foolish willfulness. But she was undeterred. She went right up to the tornado. The tornado raged in its circle, as ever.
Then it seemed to hesitate.
When Maggie began to stagger toward the tornado, and started losing her balance, the tornado backed away from her and attempted to go around her, to either side. It was like a bewildered bull coming to a tree, unsure as to whether to go left or right. Yet, Maggie continued marching toward the tornado, stumbling and staggering and fighting to stay on her feet. Her tiny figure pressed the gigantic whirlwind back, as if a horsefly biting at a horse’s nose.
Finally, the tornado began to unwind, its spiraling column of debris and darkness slowing. It came undone, diminishing and dropping all of its playthings across the brown prairie grasses. The last shreds of wind dissolved into still air, at last, and a tall, red-skinned man stood before Maggie. He had dark black hair and wore a pelt of rabbit skin across his shoulders. He wore only a loincloth of rabbit skin upon his lower torso. His body was marked, seemingly at random, with war paint.
“You are a heedless girl,” the man said. “Do you desire death?”
Maggie stared up at the tall man. There were tears in her eyes, but they were not tears of fear. They were tears of envy. “I want the freedom you have,” she said.
The man crossed his arms and pondered the girl. His dark gaze never faltered; he never blinked. “Such freedom is death for mortals,” he said. “It is death for me, but I am born again with each whirlwind, for I am a spirit of the plains.”
Maggie tightened her small fists. They were tanned from years of laboring in the field, and calloused like leather. “I want to be a spirit of the plains,” she said. “I don’t want to have to go to school or take care of my baby brother or spend all Spring and Summer and Fall harvesting and working and breaking my back. You live how you want to. I want to live the same way.”
“It will be your whole life all at once, and never again,” he warned her. “It will cost you everything.”
“I do not care,” she said. “I don’t want to be married and then buried. I don’t want to live in fences and houses built to pen me in like a cow or a sheep or a dog. I want to live the way I want. Free. For myself.”
The man stood in complete silence for a little while longer, then nodded.
“Very well,” he said. He lifted his hands and grasped hold of the winds. He seemed to knead them into threads, then spun them together with his arms, as if coiling rope. He spun them until they began to moan, then howl. He then enshrouded Maggie in the spiraling air, like a swaddling blanket, and watched as it grew into a great spiraling column of destruction.
Live free,” he said.

The tornado rolled across the prairie, spiraling exuberantly with its newfound life. It destroyed homes and businesses and killed many people. Those who survived the storm swore the winds sounded like a young woman cackling in glee. It was a storm of the decade, they said.
When the tornado finally unwound, all that remained was the detritus that the tornado tore up and ripped apart and flung around itself. As the last whisper of wind dissipated into the warm Kansas air, there could be heard a single faint whisper of peace and calm without regret.
Freedom.”

Plain Bird

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Before the first Wodaabe man painted his face
and brightened his teeth and danced in place,
before the first Himba woman wore butterfat and ocher
and collared herself in beads and a copper choker,
before the first Maasai man tamed cattle for his own good
and the first Maasai girl was cut along her womanhood,
before the first Dinka child was inscribed on his head
with the scars of maturity, silent as he bled,
before the Mursi and the Suri extended their lips
with plates to ward off slavers and their slave ships
there was a young girl, Amina, whom her tribe named
“Plain Bird” since she was so plain, and, so, ashamed
since her older sister was both beautiful and envied
attracting a man that was handsome and of a rare breed;
a man not a man, a carnal creature of two appetites,
a kishi, a hyena-man, a man who loves with bites.

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Amina’s older sister.

Amina saw his true face beneath the mask he wore,
yet no one believed her; not even her parents, anymore.
So she left her tribe, trying to follow her sister abroad,
traveling far from her home, and her tribal god.
But she became lost, losing sight of the hyena-man
as he sprinted on all fours, losing her behindhand.

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A kishi in his true form.

In the jungle she found herself, alone and weeping,
sitting down in the heart of the trees, tired then sleeping
and dreaming of a horrible creature that was huge and green
and towered above her, its body pudgy and obscene.
The creature was the Jungle, known as the Fanged Womb,
the Many-Mouthed Mother, the Birthing Tomb,
and the Jungle told Amina the means of her reckoning
that awaited her in the mountains, thereafter beckoning
her to wake up and to venture forth to find her Fate
in the Sky Lands, where even Death must wait.

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The Fanged Womb, The Many-Mouthed Mother, The Jungle

Feeling hopeless, Amina traveled across the African plains,
and was joined by a man who seemed addled in his brains.
He was tall and slender and had hair split in two—
one side red, one side black; his name, he said, was Eshu,
and he spoke to Amina as he would have a long lost friend,
teasing her with secrets about the world, and its End.
“I am a god of words,” he said, “of quarrels, and of Crossroads.
I am a messenger for the gods, of myriad names and many molds.”

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Eshu, the messenger god; god of words, quarrels, and Crossroads

He escorted her to the gigantic mountain’s base
while above them little pygmy cherubim flew, keeping apace.
No animals bothered, or even seemed to see them, as they went;
neither lion or hyena or cheetah or rhino or elephant.
When they reached the mountain, Eshu bowed very low,
his strangely long sleeves swishing to and fro.
“I will see you again, my love,” he said with a mischievous smile,
then danced away as the wind—across the savanna, mile to mile.
Turning to the mountain, Amina climbed for days to the summit,
all the while trying not to think of how she might fall and plummet.
At length, she found an old woman sitting by a little fire—
she was bald, long-limbed, like Amina, and judging by her
scars and tattoos she was a witch of immense power.
She said, “What brings you here, my little savanna flower?”
“I want revenge,” Amina said, “against the kishi creatures
that come to beautiful women while wearing the features
of handsome men, seducing and devouring innocence.”
The witch laughed. “But whose fault is it if women lack the sense
to know a bloody trick being played upon them, my dear?
Do you blame the lion because gazelles do not heed fear?”
Amina became angry and blew out the woman’s flame,
and the witch grinned like the Jungle, baring fangs just the same;
only her skin was not green, but was instead darkly browned—
brown like the rocks of the mountain, strewn all around.
She grew tall, and vast, as big as a mountain peak
and she looked down upon Amina, and thus did she speak:
“You are bold,” she said, “but you will need to be bolder still
if you wish to kill the kishi in their faraway hill.
But I will teach you, dearest, since you have a great destiny,
though I fear it will be bloody—very bloody— and not bless many.”

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The Hag Of the Mountain

And so the Hag of the Mountain taught Amina spells
and, more importantly, told her many of the Creation Tales,
and, unlike her tribe, Amina did not adorn herself in any way,
for that attracted the Hyena Men, the kishi, to their prey.
Amina learned to dance along the scales of a crocodile’s back
and to run on all fours, barking, among a wild dog pack,
and to sneak, unseen, amidst a flock of flighty flamingo birds
and to run headlong against stampeding wildebeest herds.
She learned blood magic, too, and how to listen to the wind,
and how to make fetishes so death would not be the end,
for she died many times in her trials and during each test
and the clay figures died in her stead so she could continue her quest.
And then there came a day when she went out upon the plains
and dressed herself up, ringing her neck with copper chains
and painting her face and looping the lobe of each ear
and dancing in the moonlight, shaking her hips with a leer.
A kishi came, as expected, and Amina invited him to dance
then wounded him with her spear, taking that lucky chance
to follow him as he fled back to his clan’s den,
running too swiftly now to ever lose her way again.
She came to the hill where women were enslaved
and killed all of the kishi, so that the women were saved,
but her sister was not among them; having died in childbirth
to give rise to another kishi to defile the earth.
In her rage, Amina also killed many a kishi son,
mercilessly erasing each and every generation.

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But the blood fury had gotten hold of her that day
and with it the notion that gods, themselves, had to pay.
For, she thought, who allowed the cruel kishi to continue?
The gods deserved to answer for their irresponsibility, too.
Thus, Amina dedicated herself to slaying the Powers That Be
and taking their fetish masks to transform herself freely
between gazelle and lion and croc and various birds,
whereupon she was visited by Eshu, the god of words
and of Crossroads, for she had lost sense of direction and place
now that she had lost herself, and her own human face.
He frowned at her and he said, in a tone as if numb,
“You hate the gods, my love, but what have you become?
You are now a god against gods, the goddess of Death.”
Amina staggered as if struck, unable to catch her breath,
for she realized it was true: she had become a primordial beast
and had offered to the Fanged Womb a glorious feast;

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The Jungle is pleased by Amina’s feast.

a feast of the gods, cloyed on the creatures of Order
now slain, destroyed, their realms in unrest, border to border,
whereas Eshu, being a god of Chaos and of Change
looked upon the devastation and gauged its range
and he said, “It is fine. You have done no better or worse
than any other creature born to Life’s blood curse.”
He took her away, then, to let her rest and recover
and, in time, she loved him deeply, though she took no lover.

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The above is an outline for a graphic novel I wish I had the time and money to pursue (albeit an outline in rhyming verse, probably because I am a masochist). Anyway, it is based on various African myths and the artwork consists of a bunch of concept designs I have been playing with throughout the years. Will it ever be made into an actual graphic novel— or, at least, an illustrated novel? I dunno. It is just another dream on the backburner right now.

The Dream Seekers

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Only the old, wide-eyed owl dared ask “Who? Who?
Who dares trespass upon the flint-black plain
when the stars shimmer brightly, as if born anew
and crowned in radiance; their stelliferous reign?”

Coyotes caterwauled just beyond the horizon
and the hare in his burrow, like the sun, sheltered,
while twins crouched beneath the hides of bison,
stalking the thousand-headed herd.

The herd had thundered by the light of day
and now knelt before the ivory-horned moon,
the crown that empowered with each Dreamful ray
the White Buffalo that was named Fortune.

The twins watched from beneath borrowed skins
as that celestial beast touched hoof to earth
and Tawiskaron raised a spear to add to his sins
while Glaskoop shouted to stop such wicked mirth.

The herd scattered as if bitten by snakes,
but the White Buffalo faced his foe with his eyes afire,
his charge concussing the ground with earthquakes—
yet the hunter did not falter in his aim or desire.

The spear struck the brow of that Dreaming beast;
it moaned, swayed, and then collapsed in a heap,
and the wicked twin cut out its heart, thereupon to feast,
saying “I will now Dream of all beasts untouched in Sleep.”

“This is not good,” Glooskap said. “You have slain a Dream.”
“And more will I slay,” his wicked brother said.
He grinned then, as a skull, and gave forth a war scream,
vowing he would take every Dream Beast’s head.

But with the dawn came their ancient grandmother
and she went to speak to her wicked grandson,
asking Tawiskaron, “Where is your brother?
We must speak, for I fear evil has been done.”

“I know what has been done,” Tawiskaron lied.
“Glooskap hunted last night and has wickedly slain
the White Buffalo, skinning that Dream of its hide
and has vowed to hunt all Dreams until none remain.”

Grandmother Spider was fooled, or so it seemed,
and she banished Glooskap from her home henceforth,
so he ventured into exile while Tawiskaron Dreamed,
and soon the giant, Winter, rose from the North.

But Glooskap stole the White Buffalo’s hide
and used it to conceal himself in the coming snow,
hoping to hunt his wicked brother at Wintertide
to avenge himself and the White Buffalo.

Tawiksaron hid in Dreams, where none could follow
and so Glooskap roamed for many eons, all alone,
surviving on his own, but feeling lonely and hollow
for the selfish betrayal his twin brother had shown.

Glooskap traveled Westward, in search of power
to fend off the Winter, who raged over the lands,
and found himself witness to a meteor shower
that dropped many small eggs into his upturned hands.

The eggs nearly froze in the blizzard’s air,
so he took them to a mountain cave and built a fire,
then bundled them up next to the blaze, with care,
and hugged them to his chest so they would not expire.

For three years he warmed them in that drafty hole,
never releasing them while the Winter warred on,
and, in time, he felt them burning, each a hot coal
which he had endowed his own soul’s heat upon.

And then he Dreamed of his Grandmother one night
and she said she knew he was not guilty of any crimes,
but he had a destiny that would eventually come to light
as he struggled in exile and the coming End-Times.

When he awoke, the eggs hatched in a flash of light
and scintillating colors, the rolling boom-boom-boom
of electric-winged Thunderbirds taking to flight
like lightning, epileptic in that underground gloom.

They zig-zagged out of the cave, and out into the storm,
and grew larger as they crackled into the cold sky;
their lightning struck across the vaults of heaven, so warm
that it wounded Winter, and thereupon he did die.

Glooskap then awaited the end of the world
as the snows, which had fallen so deep and so heavy,
all at once melted, the profuse floods unfurled,
breaking loose over every dam, watershed, and levee.

And as Winter’s blood became a worldwide deluge
he saw serpents rising from the single, great ocean;
venomous snakes hungry and hateful and huge,
and swirling with a triumphant commotion.

The Bridge of Snakes rose, and Glooskap prayed for aid
to help him defeat such monsters therein encoiled,
and Grandmother Spider sent to him a tribe thus made
of survivors who traveled together as the ocean roiled.

Beneath the shadow of a Raven-winged magician
they invoked the Sun, that radiant daughter
whom was for every tribe, creed, and tradition
a nurturing light against the darksome water.

And it is said that they invoked the powers of Dreams
to defeat the serpents of the depths, ensnaring them all
in a great net of Dream Weavers, whose very seams
were threaded from Life and spirits that answer its call.

 

Recently a very generous reader gave my book “The Dark Dreamer” a kind review on Amazon, just when I needed it the most.  Lately I have wondered if the book series was even worth the time and effort in pursuing as a trilogy, since so few people seemed interested in it (beyond the handful of people who have read it and expressed their pleasure).  Anyway, lo and behold I had a poem in my head forecasting the rest of the trilogy and decided to write it down just before I read said generous review.  I suppose I must finish the series now, if only out of obligation to such charitable people.  It never ceases to gratify me to know someone spent time (a portion of their mortal life, no less) on something I have written.  It is a sacrifice, in my opinion, and it embarrasses me to charge money for access to my work. —S.C. Foster

Lenaea

Sour grapes have never been sweeter
when victory, in the spirit of Pyrrhus,
dances in the scorched earth of Demeter
and chants loudly, “Fear us! Fear us!”
so as to endear ourselves to Dionysus
with a wine like hubris, a dizzying draught
confusing Athena unto a moral crisis
while we celebrate the destruction wrought.
Burn down all but the overripe vineyards
and let the fomented masses trample grapes,
otherwise their hearts may feel the poniards
of Nemesis, from whom no one escapes.
All life is a bitter festival of plays
whose tragedy is a captious chorus,
so make a satyr play of all the foolhardy days
when preachy tragedies begin to bore us.
Drink! Drink! Deaden the sorrow
so you may exult in a battle finally won…
for today, though the loss of tomorrow
will reckon the cost with blood-fingered Dawn.
Aeschylus of old, and Sophocles, held as second
among the Greeks, followed by Euripides,
a cynic before his time— they all beckoned
and yet we still attempt pure-lipped pleas
as we accost the Fates with approval
while our mouths are stained sour
with wine, and blood, for which no removal
is assured as we drink more with each festive hour.
This triumph is but the pomp of prologue,
so now comes the suffering of the Acts
which sobers those lost in the Bacchic fog
and clears eyes with wintry-winded facts.
More wine! More! Stomp the splendid fruits
begot by our labor; stomp while standing tall
upon cothurni shoes, those conceited stage-boots
which elevate while pressing down all.
Hold fast the mask, too, ere it drops
to reveal the flinching face which grieves;
a thing, like all other furnished stage props,
is true insomuch as the audience believes.
Like Janus, from whom January takes its name,
we are two-faced with every harvest
and pride ourselves while stamping shared shame
upon others for the same katharsis.
The error is ours, and so, too, the exacting price,
for in winning we have lost to our laurels
which strangle as ivy while we embrace our vice
as virtue, unrestrained by Homer’s morals.
And so comes the exodus, oft too soon,
because the winepress bleeds divine nectar
for Dionysus, always cursing with a boon
sees peripety befalling both Achilles and Hector.
Tragic irony does not teach us to be wiser
nor dissuade us from following Fate’s script—
rather, we are blinded by pride’s gleaming visor
as a horse, saddled and beaten and whipped.
So go on with the festival, the plays, the wine,
and drink behind your masks, and choke, then,
trying to add your voice to the choral line;
the goddess, Nike, has oft misspoken.