I had always admired the garden, the way it held the old house in a gentle embrace, the sentinel trees, and the way the borders grew up from small-flowered creepers, through lilies, irises, hollyhocks, alliums to the climbers, woodbine, jasmine and clematis. Pergolas of wisteria and roses made a second rampart and the sky-blue paintwork of door and windows against the orange brick called back to the joyous flower pageant. She was always outside, from first to last frosts. Always adding new plants, splitting and replanting. Like a painting, or a tapestry. I asked her once how she kept the plan in her head. ‘Everything I do is stitched,’ she said, ‘with its colour, the thread holding the pattern together. There’s no mystery really. The plants all know their places.’ As did the rabbits, the birds and lizards, the small dogs. Even the unicorn.
Her mantlepiece was a gallery of saints, each one with a specific job to do. There were statuettes of various sightings of the Virgin Mary, and a sheaf of Mass cards ready to be consulted and invoked with the prayer written on the back. Her favourite idolatrous image was Saint Martin de Porres, in the form of a statue I was convinced was Cy Grant in Dominican robes. She loved Martin because he loved animals, and he had a position of prestige on top of the cabinet in the front room from where he could beam over at the Infant of Prague in his glass case above the gas fire. Saint Martin was brought out mainly to bless eyesight, in particular my youngest sister’s. She had perfectly good eyesight when Saint Martin was ministering to it, but later she needed glasses. He was never asked to look at mine, thank goodness. The saint most often called upon though was Saint Jude, patron saint of lost causes. My great-gran didn’t want to bother Saint Anthony, though in theory, it was his job to find lost things. She reckoned he had enough to do holding onto the baby Jesus. She went straight to Jude, most people’s last resort. My great-gran also had excellent eyesight but in her nineties, she couldn’t always find a needle if she dropped it on the floor. When we were there, the four of us usually managed to find it, without, as far as I could tell, any intervention on the part of Saint Jude. Given that the search always turned up other tiny lost things, I doubted he was much help ever. I wonder now if she wouldn’t have found it more practical to have kept a magpie instead. She always had a houseful of birds with broken wings or legs she was patching up with the help of Saint Martin, matchstick splints and doses of sugar and brandy (whiskey was never used for medicinal purposes. That’s what brandy was invented for), and I saw several jackdaws over the years. Never a magpie though. Maybe jackdaws aren’t as interested in tiny bright objects as magpies, or simply Saint Jude made sure, in connivance with Saint Francis, that no bird was going to do him out of a job.
For the dverse prompt, using the line from Celia Dropkin’s poem, Sullivan County:
In the tender gray, I swim undisturbed
Grey not tender
Sky is full of clouds above the cliffs, where gulls hang in the tender grey. I swim undisturbed in water that is cold, grey, not tender. The light is cold, grey, harsh for this end of summer. The gulls don’t care and laugh as they dip and glide, masters of the wind. These are their elements, wind and water, not mine. They embrace the soft grey, the wind that ruffles feathers and the dark swell. They dive, splash, scream, rise and flip with the wind, while I plough a ragged furrow laboriously. The water furrow becomes shingle and grey pebbles, and I plough ahead, suddenly heavier and the wind colder. You’ll be there up at the house, reading or doing some useful job. Not looking seaward. Not looking for me. You’ll have lit the stove in the kitchen, it will glow red and comfortless.
In the street of the sky, night walks, scattering poems. In the lanes of the farmland, day stalks, tossing anathemas. In the alleys of the sea, twilight sinks, drowning litanies. And in the ways of my heart, I dance, singing songs my voice could never find. Because I am not a singer, any more than night is a poet, day a fanatic, the sea despairing. But we can paint whatever pictures we like with our fingers, build a ship of dreams, fill it with jewel-words.
Perhaps tonight I will grow wings and fly, catch one of night’s discarded poems. Or I could wait for morning and pick one from among the roses. Whatever. I will hold it up to the light until the words drop into my hand, and I will paint you a better one, in all the colours the night never dreams
The image I chose for today’s Folktober challenge, is an illustration of the Werewolves of Ossory, It’s a joyful sort of a picture, perhaps explained by the difference between the Medieval notion of the werewolf, and Hollywood’s. A werewolf was a man (usually) trapped in the body of a wolf by enchantment, a gentle creature with sad, imploring eyes, hoping to be recognised and released. What came to me was not a poem, but a story, that grew longer than I had intended. I’m posting it here, and you can read the other contributions on Paul’s blog here.
The King of Ossory and the wolf scam
One time, during the reign of Donnchad mac Gilla Pátraic, a pack of wolves took up residence in the Kingdom of Ossory. Bishop Fogartaig of Kilkenny claimed they were not ordinary wolves but the suitors of Donnchad’s daughter Órlaigh, turned into animals by her womanish magic. He placed Donnchad under an obligation to hand over Órlaigh, as only by her death could the hapless young nobles be released from their enchantment. Now Donnchadh had a deal of affection for his eldest daughter, who, to his certain knowledge had not been pestered by half the eligible young men of the province asking to marry her, as the bishop suggested. She had, in fact, already chosen Ruaidhrí, the son of Cearbhall mac Domnall, king of the smaller part of Ossory. The marriage was opposed by the High King, as it would make Ossory one of the most powerful kingdoms in the land. Donnchad had designs on Leinster, and had already won significant battles there. Leinster was the High King’s strongest ally, and Bishop Fogartaig was the High King’s brother.
Donnchadh called Órlaigh to him. “I see what the old fox is after. The disputes within the family keep Ossory divided and that suits the High King just fine. A marriage between you and Cearbhall’s son would seal a pact.” “And I’d marry Ruaidhrí,” Órlaigh said, “even if I hadn’t given him my heart, just to see the High King’s long nose put out of joint.”
So Donnchad organised a hunt and captured the wolves as they were eying up a flock of sheep, without killing a single one of them. He had the wolves taken back to his fort at Kilkenny and had one of his nephews, a certain Fergal, have a look at them. Fergal was the prior at St. Canice’s monastery, and Donnchad had a mind to make him the next abbot, and perhaps, once all of Ossory was in his power, the next bishop. Fergal studied the beasts as they huddled together in the back of their pen and asked to have the gate opened to let him in. Archers, one for each of the wolves, stood at the ready to intervene should Fergal’s guess prove wrong. The wolves eyed him suspiciously, fearful as he knew them to be of all men, and waited to see what he would do. First of all he spoke to them. “If you are truly men, I have a gift for you, to pay for the harm done to you by King Donnchad’s daughter.” He tossed a purse full of gold towards the wolves and watched as they crept towards it, sniffed, and slunk back in disgust. “But if you are truly wolves, I have something else.” From another purse at his belt, Fergal took something round and held it up for the wolves to see, for the breeze to carry its strong scent. The wolves pricked their ears and sniffed the air. Fergal waved the treat about then tossed it to the nearest wolf who snapped it up and licked his lips. Fergal took another treat out of his bag and held it up. The pack stepped forward in unison. “Sit!” Fergal commanded. The wolves sat. He approached one of the wolves and said, “Paw!” The wolf held up a front paw and Fergal tossed him the treat. He went to the next wolf. “Paw!” The wolf gave Fergal his paw, and Fergal tossed him the treat. The third time, Fergal took a gold coin from the purse and held it out. “Paw!” The wolf obeyed, sniffed and slowly lowered his paw in disappointment. Fergal turned to Donnchad. “Órlaigh is guilty of no crime. There’s not a man among them; they are dog to the bone.” “And I have a pack of wolves that I will have to slaughter,” Donnchad replied. “I have a better idea, Father,” Órlaigh said. “The bishopric has rich pasture. Why not take this fine band of young nobles to sniff around Fogartaig’s fat sheep. I’d like to see how the bishop welcomes them.” “If he agrees that they are wolves and not men, he will be able to kill them to defend his flocks,” Fergal said. “On the other hand, if he insists they are royal scions, he will be bound to give them hospitality.” Needless to say, Bishop Fogartaig swallowed his holy principles and set his men upon the wolf pack, Órlaigh’s reputation was cleared, she married the pulse of her heart, Fergal was appointed Bishop of Kilkenny when Fogartaig fell out of the High King’s favour, and Donnchad mac Gilla Pátraic became the scourge of Leinster until a more ruthless chieftain united the kingdoms of Leinster and drove him out.
In the dark, all cats are grey, all dogs are wolves, and it takes a laughing monk with kindness in his hands to call them brothers, sisters, even in the lean times.
For the dverse prompt, a piece of prose of 144 words, that includes the line of Bob Dylan’s To her, death is quite romantic.
Death isn’t usually something to party to. Her death is. Quite romantic is how her ex-fiancé describes it, with his usual crass stupidity, performance art. All he has ever seen is the theatrical way she chose to leave and takes a smug pride in it. On her anniversary, we, who knew her from school, college, as the opera diva she became, throw the wildest party we can manage. We listen to Madama Butterfly, and at the end of the final act, we weep, remembering her in the role, and that last performance when the knife Butterfly used to kill herself, was a real one. He sheds a tear too, imagining she did it because he broke off the engagement. He has never understood that she treated the engagement as a huge joke. That he was a huge joke. And he never knew about Max.
Thanks to the editors at Ekphrastic for finding room for this horse piece. The subject is one I researched for my last novel, so I’m pleased it rang true. You can read all the chosen work here.
At first, they had a Mistress of the Animals, those Black Sea peoples, the plains and horse peoples of Asia Minor. They passed on their heritage from mother to daughter and they brought husbands into the maternal home. The Mistresses watched over their charges, offered grain and wine not blood, made whole, nurtured. The Mistress of the Animals was flanked by lionesses. Nurturing huntresses.
Did the horses notice the tipping of the world when the Mistress was replaced by a Master, when the lioness guardians grew wings, talons and cruel beaks? Did they feel a change in the hands that held the reins? The plains were as wide, winters as hard, but the hands, were they as gentle?
The winds that swept those antique plains swept away the tenderness. We reap the whirlwind now; horses bear heavier burdens and cruel bits. They race and jump and dance, carry children in endless circles. They obey, their eyes on the whip, noses sniffing our recycled air. There are no horse dreams in this brave new world.
Poets on the shores of the world’s fringe wrote in the sands of the foaming shallows, in the stars that march across dark hills, of how the world has changed. Utterly. We snatch at the whirling debris, listen for hoofbeats.
I’m pleased to have another short piece of fiction in the Ekphrastic Review. You can read all of the poems and short stories here.
The abbess dipped her brush in the crimson and carefully dabbed in an eye. The monster winked at her. She filled in the other eye. Black pupils bored into hers, and she turned away for a moment to clear the vision. She had been gifted with visions since she was a small child and they called her Hildegard. The name had faded, but she had the visions still.
Her fingers itched to continue. Paint us. Give us life. There was more crimson needed for the demon’s tongue. The abbess added three tiny brush strokes. She had been worried that the visions were sinful, but the archbishop had encouraged her to set them down in her books. Not sinful then. But disturbing. Distressing sometimes.
She changed brushes. Ochre. The prince’s breeches. The monster’s head was between the prince’s legs. Why did he have a demon in the place of his manly parts? She sighed. An allegory possibly. Men’s urges. Though the times were reasonably calm, even if the English were still fighting one another. They had no king, hadn’t had one for as long as she could remember. And the Pope was calling for another crusade.
The abbess looked at the red-eyed monster, black, hair like serpents. Evil, but not a Saracen, she decided. They worshiped one god, not like the Heathens. They were simply fighters. It was their land after all. The men fought and the women prayed. It was the same the world over. She thought for a moment about the Saracen women, praying, cloistered and veiled just as she was. But in their houses, fountains played in colonnaded courtyards, and birds sang in cool shaded gardens. Their husbands and fathers watched the stars and made maps of the heavens. Did their women watch too and wonder with them? She would have done, if she had been able. She hoped her Saracen-sisters did.
She had never known her own sisters. Hildegard had been given into God’s service when she was too young to remember, and her occupations had always been those of God’s handmaiden. She had been observed night and day. Protected from evil.
Green this time. The Serpent with a woman’s face. The Serpent always had a woman’s face. It was God’s will. She paused, the brush poised above the tiny puddle of verdigris, thinking of a clear desert night, a deep black sky alive with stars, a jackal howling.
In a deft movement, the hovering brush dipped instead into the oak gall ink, and the abbess gave the Serpent a neat black beard.