Friday, 27 April 2012

The Penelope Letters

Ulysses, absent husband, I am writing to you from the forgotten kingdom, the hidden harbour of Ithaca.

I live in an age of beauty, but it's a passing age, and you have been gone a long time. It's hard to hold it all in your head. All the different ways there are of enjoying your life. Or not enjoying it. Behind me the mountains reflect the dark colour-scheme of the Gods. The tree in our bedroom grows green and full, then sheds its leaves. Each year it bears less fruit. Come home Ulysses.

I think of you out there, pitting your strength against the high seas, or the low churning pitch of the oceans, making your heroic way. I see the salt in your eyebrows. Ulysses, believe me when I tell you I taste it on your lower lip. Meanwhile I rest here; I am left to ravel our lives, feel the slub, the warp and weft of their different textures. All around me the suitors are waiting for their moment. They play cards, roll dice for their fortune. Your old dog nibbles his flank for fleas, thumps his tail weakly. Our body and your wealth are being torn from you.

They are growing unruly these suitors, drinking your fine wines, stealing a stroke of my back now, as they bend to enquire as to my well-being. And have I news of you? The moon grows full and bruised, and looks in at my window to see how I am doing. She sees you too, on your boat. I am usually sure of it. I think of you now, lying out on the salty deck, below the implacable moon, your skin like white marble in this light. Like white stone. You are like a piece of the moon yourself.

The cook says she will do baked figs in honey to sweeten the tempers of the suitors. I hear their voices soaring almost in song as they grow wilder and surer of their deserts. Some of them have carved their initials into the bark of our tree. When I saw this I wept tears as sticky with grief as the beads of resin wept by the cut tree herself.

I am fond of this tree Ulysses. I stroke her, and she comforts me in unfathomable ways. I ask myself: is she Daphne, transformed by the lusts of others into a form unlike her own? If so, the tree and I share something more than simply space here.

What does it mean to wait for you? I cover the space of our domestic lives with my footprints, with the palm of my hand. I am in the threadbare mood of waiting. I count the hours as though it is possible to hoard them, to be as profligate with them as any other form of gold. The light leans in at my bedroom window and lies blocks of gold upon the floorboards. The air itself is aromatic here. I have gold stolen from the hoards of Hesperus. Come home Ulysses. There is treasure enough.

I long for you. I imagine you next to me and my heart cracks in my poor breast to think of you. What can I mean? My heart has no thoughts. It simply does its patient work. It beats its rhythms into my life. My life pulses with the fourfold beat of missing you. I am thickening under this accretion of longing.

Where is the sense in it? Let me tell you each of its senses. It has a bitter taste, this longing. Like the pith of a pomegranate. It is gall in my mouth; it has a low sound, like the deep melancholy boom of the whale, sunk to abysmal depths; it feels as chill and as dear as the kiss of a beloved ghost. I ache for the ghost of Ulysses to come and cover me with your briny kisses, but my moribund body holds me in this palace and I can no more reach you than you can me.

It looks like rain on the distant mountains. A clinging veil of abstracted light, falling slant against the earth's back.I am turned inside out with longing for you Ulysses.  I am beyond recall. Come home. It is time.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Bluebeard's Last Wife

His touch nettles her skin into forgetting, memories she cannot make out flap like faded flags. When he speaks to her, dense shadows bruise her face. She fits his words carefully to her understanding. She tries hard to be a good wife to him, to concentrate on his finer qualities. She strives to ignore his cold potency, the fact that he has a flair for injury.
He steps like a hero from his portrait, to tell her he must leave. He is going away for a few days. In the time it takes her to roll over in bed, Bluebeard has disappeared and she has already begun to imagine the next move. Stars prickle the window, like iron filings, patterning the sky with motive.
What does she see when she opens the door? A little room filled with the mystery of colour, blood pooling and staining its dark maps into the floor. The open-mouthed dead are floating in grotesque pools of light, hanging in sorrow on the walls, slumped in disbelief on the floor. As she stands in the room it is as though  she has entered a sealed tomb in her heart. She is trapped. She knows that love can be a cryptic force, but this time, she doesn't think she can unravel its puzzle.
Fumbling to turn back time she drops the key into the sump of blood at her feet. Snatching it up she bursts out of the door and flies back down the unfamiliar corridors to her own life, her heart pumping pure terror.
But the key, of course, is ruined, marked indelibly with the curse of curiosity. At night she frets about this key, more than she worries about the room. Try as she might she cannot make the thing mean anything other than itself.
Morning will come, and with it, the return of Bluebeard. Morning will come and the key will shriek its own story to its master.
His embrace is an aggression of assessment. Come back to me, my fierce loving heart, she begs of herself. Come back and shine like crazy now. Instead, inside her breast her heart flops like a tiny unkissed frog.
It is so then, thinks Bluebeard. And knows what will happen next.

Saturday, 14 April 2012


His origins are obscure, his lineage doubtful. They say he was born in the year of the child, in the time of revised spells. These days, he sits in smoky inns and dreams of winters. He has teeth in the back of his head, and a reputation as large as a plate of raw meat, and as appalling. Nevertheless he believes that no-one has a heart more susceptible to love. But still, Bluebeard is as shunned as a six-legged calf. Every day he prowls the hedgerows and streets looking for someone to love.
Every Sunday, in his dark blue Sunday suit he ends up at the Red Lion down by the canal, sinking his dark-blue Sunday kiss into a pint of bitter, leaving behind him a trail of trampled loosestrife and campion. From his seat by the grimy window he can see the sour, pockmarked canal. He can imagine the soft slap of water as it hits the dark stone. In his pocket he fingers the tiny key to the red room.
One Sunday, it is a Sunday just such as this, he sees her, standing at the water's edge. She is as pale as a cracked bride. The gentleness of graveyards is upon her. She tilts at gawkiness, hesitates on the edge of grace. His eyes glitter with recognition, and something stirs in his throat.
Just as he is wondering whether to leave the public house and make some sort of introduction, the dark door flies open and there she stands, for all the world like the knife-thrower's girl welcoming the dangerous bouquet of blades as they fly to towards her.
It is not so. It has not been so and it never will be so. But just for this moment, it is so.
'Come with me' he says, bending his mouth to her ear,  'to my palace in the fields and I will show you a place where the early hyacinths sweeten the air, where cowslips and the wild clover grow. I will open your nostrils to the strange perfume of the trees coming into their green.'
No-one, he imagines, will have ever spoken like this to this girl. Understanding less and less, he takes her by the hand and leads her up the winding nursery hill to his private kingdom. Flowering nettles gather spit in their throats as the two of them stagger past. Behind them the short afternoon empties of air, light, logic, and fills with the bruising compulsion of evening. When at last they reach the castle, he leads her up the stone steps and hands her the iron key laying it across her palm like a challenge. 'Put it in.' he commands her. 'Put it in.'
All the time, he is dreaming up new ways to kill her.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

The Minotaur

If I could unflinch, I would stand straight. I would lift my great head and meet you eye to eye.

Eat, sleep, stretch, bellow. My life in the labyrinth shrinks to unimaginable dimensions, mythically proportioned. My father, the king, uses me as a threat to Athens. My massive frame, cooped under metal and wet stone, perpetuates their distant nightmares. My hooves trample their dreams. Every year fourteen new virgins are paraded down the labyrinthine stairs in sacrificial stupor, as I get hungrier and angrier. Why am I grown so brutal? In bitter mud I stamp my skittish heart, as if I could see the print of an answer there.What do I see? I am black of eye. My ear is pierced in gold. My body is the pewter colour of sea under a storm.

At dusk, I am allowed out, and I emerge from this place, blinking and wondering if it has been this beautiful all day. The briar rose is spilled perfume across the entrance to my cave. I lift up my hands to the sky and my nails are the colour of hyacinth bulbs. I turn my hands over and marvel at them. It seems to me they are the hands of a king. They should be gloved and jewelled, but they are bruised and derelict. My misshapen life is too heavy for my shoulders, I can barely lift my head to look at the emerging moon. Above us scrolls the mighty wheel of signs and portents. Feathers fly through the air. The angels, or something very like them, have been here. My bull eyes roll backwards and fear licks the back of my throat.

Now they will bring a citizen for my sport. Let the killing time begin,  behind me somewhere, the monstrous royal is baying for blood. My eye sharpens you into movement as though you feel the flick of it upon you. I am the sound of distant thunder. I am the taste of bile. Very soon, all that's left is the thick scent of blood and the whole burly ritual will be over for another day.