In this Gothic, fairy tale poem, a monster, Malgremir, wakes from an enchanted slumber and begins slaying children one snowy Christmas eve. Over the years, the monster ruins the small town.
The church organist, Horace Anderson, attempts to stop the monster, and his journeys lead him to a desert labyrinth where he is met with a burning brazier and a strange surprise.
The rhyme scheme is abab.
The Old Railroad Track
An old railroad track arches over a dark, cold river
Whose banks are enveloped in glittering white snow.
A rumbling, screeching train barrels forth; the tracks shiver;
The falling flakes are illuminated in the headlight’s brash glow,
Sparkling, glistering for an instant, then moonlit and dim again.
The light catches the river, whose eddies spangle in yellow light,
Then the water, too, is cast back into darkness.
The locomotive plows on, its cattleguard hurling snow in its flight,
Leaving the old, arching track quiet once more, muffled and sparkless.
And still the river ripples unflaggingly on, rounding stones, carving banks.
The creaking pines stand still and portentous.
There then stirs a creature with ram’s horns and silvered flanks,
With scarlet eyes lambent in ursine skull, white and horrendous,
With muscular arms ’neath its glossy pelt,
And a long fleecéd tail finishing in the form of a spade.
That creature lugs itself from where it dwelt,
Long dreaming and woolgathering and artfully stayed,
Thrall to a woven spell, one gathered and cast in times forgotten and past,
By a profound sorcerer who fathomed that creature’s dark power.
And through seasons beginning and seasons last,
Age to age, plot to plot, sifting sands, hour upon hour,
The evil lay dormant. Time destroyed the mage.
But the spell remained, growing weaker as mountains grew,
Lessening in strength as the earth did age,
While the restful creature struggled with dreamy thews
And cloudy powers ’gainst that dwindling charm,
Until on the night before Christmas, when the town was aslumber,
The ancient abomination stirred and raised its arm.
Then its lucent, igneous eyes blazed, and it stood in wonder
To look about the snow-swept forest and peaceful star-washed night.
A Christmas Surprise
In the valley, white smoke billows sleepily from chimneys;
Snow lies pleasantly banked on quiet street corners.
Streetlamps cast their lemony glow on leafless, slim trees.
The quiet churchyard with its stones is absent mourners.
And as pearly clouds scud across the crescent mooned sky,
All is calm, all is bright.
Atop a hill stands a home in whose yard a quivering, lone leaf
Trembles in the cold night’s breeze, fixed by its thin stem
To an icy branch. Blustered and gusted in autumn’s withering fief,
And, having borne with silent fortitude the rain and wind,
The dead brown leaf at last releases its clinging grip.
The leaf floats past a lightless window, shaded by heavy sash,
On whose far side sleeps a child, fair of hair, soft of lip,
With dreams of peppermint, gifts, and seasonal Christmas hash.
A cloud sails away from the moon’s sickle shape;
Soft moonbeams filter onto the glittering snow,
As the hellish creature, prowling like some eerie ape,
Steals across the snowy lawn to the lulled child’s window.
And there, with its incandescent eyes shining redly,
It raises the unfastened glass, creeps into the room,
And with movements soft, practiced, and deadly,
Metes out to the sleeping child his untimely doom.
This ancient evil leaves only bones and blood
From its foul feast: pelvis and femur, ribs and skull.
That child, that dream-full spark, is permuted to an eternity of mud:
Far too calm, far too constant, far too distant, far too dull.
Then as the monster entered, so the monster leaves.
Thus it is that on the morning of gleeful anticipation,
The soul that is happy becomes the soul that grieves,
As Mother and Father scream for their lost creation.
The Monster in the Cathedral
It is a cold, sunny morning, remarkable for its shining snow.
Parishioners pass the church’s crooked wrought-iron fence,
Past the gravestones which a child, yesterday, dipped below,
And through the heavy, wooden double-doors of the entrance.
Sunlight filters through the cathedral’s stained glass,
Tinting pews and aisle in colored light thick with dust.
A polished family of four, dressed smartly for mass,
Amble down the aisle in pacific, heavenly trust.
There is a brown-haired boy and a brunette girl,
And it is the boy, who, peering amongst the rafters and eaves,
Sees hanging, its arms ’round its chest in batlike curl
And warily alert of the oppugnant congregation it perceives,
That self-same creature whose dark deeds blasted the town,
And threw its calm citizens into fiery, disconsolate animosity.
“There!” cries the boy, “Look there! Hanging upside-down!
There’s a beast! It’s some kind of monstrosity!”
And his sister, looking upward, screams at the sight,
For there is the creature, tense at being seen,
Now suddenly scuttling in furious, fearful flight
Across the nave’s ceiling, as, in one voice, the two children scream.
Strange it is to see, however, that the confused parents
See nothing of the fell creature that climbs on the ceiling
And so they hush their children with hisses and unfair comments,
Til other children take up the cry. They also see the monster.
The children all gesture, point, and howl,
But the parents see an empty nave, rafters, eaves, balusters,
Nothing that skitters, scuttles, or moves. Not a thing that prowls.
And, looking at the curious scene, of many children screaming,
And of many blank-faced parents searching with their eyes and ears,
The church’s organist, his hands full of sheet music, wonders what he’s seeing.
This man, Mr. Horace Anderson, a bespectacled, retiring gentleman far gone in years,
Considers a moment the strange spectacle, watching with some inkling,
And looks in vain toward the ceiling to find a creature there.
But, like other adults, he sees nothing, yet he sets himself to thinking,
As the creature passes out the nave, towards its belfry lair.
An Ancient Tome
Mr. Anderson, driving home, takes a bridge over a cold dark river,
Whose banks are enveloped in glittering white snow.
Plunged in deep consideration of an antique scrivener,
Mr. Anderson circles up an icy mountain to his home on a windswept, wet plateau,
While the details of an elusive passage frustrate Mr. Anderson’s recall.
Thus it is with furrowed brow that he pulls into his drive
enters his house, and makes for the books near the wall.
Fingering each spine, he mutters and feels his mind revive
As he pulls a book off the shelf and sweeps cobwebs from its cover.
He blows dust off its pale and tattered binding,
turns its brittle yellow pages, and there discovers
the fell description of a child-eating thing,
cast into somnolence by an itinerant wizard
then left to rot in a solemn forest uncolonized by man,
through seasons of sweltering sun and gelid blizzards.
This arcane chronicle details how the child-eating thing
Was invisible to adults but well-seen by children.
The text tells how the evil slept inverted in lofty places, wherever it could cling,
And how, when it devoured a child, it left but bones and patches of skin.
Mr. Anderson read on into the bitter night,
His brow furrowed, and his lips drawn tight and severe.
Behind the twisted yellow moon, stars lay spangled with dull, cold light.
Then Mr. Anderson starts suddenly as he learns the monster’s hateful name, Malgremir.
Seven Years Later
Seven years later, the quaint town lies abandoned.
Centipedes crawl fearlessly on homes’ stairs; mice inhabit dining rooms.
The cathedral, and particularly the belfry, is well shunned.
In the churchyard, in the cracks of the headstones, are dandelion blooms.
The cemetery gates swing creakily; a gentle wind rustles peeling paint;
The church door’s hinges are broken; the great Gothic door lies ajar and crooked.
Inside, mold grows behind a dusty portraiture of a haloed saint,
While the nave appears washed in hues of rose and blood and red,
For of the stained glass panes only the red remain unbroken.
The pews are covered in a thick layer of dust,
In which an occasional, devilish footprint is imprinted as a token
Of Malgremir, who remains in the belfry as still and as silent as a bust.
Only his brilliant eyes, vivid crimson, are visible in the darkness.
Malgremir hangs batlike from a rafter in the darkest, most shadowed corner.
His mind is as patient as a serpent’s, his behavior as indefatigable as a shark’s address.
Since that first Christmas night, he has made many more mourners
From the families of the staid and respectable parishioners.
He brought the strongest men limitless grief as their children were devoured,
And he bore comfortless heartbreak to loving mothers who fell, as wailing petitioners,
To their knees, beseeching mercy from that almighty heavenly power.
Searches for the monster were inaugurated, but they proved fruitless.
Children were consulted, and they pointed, quavering, at the ghastly thing.
Men fired guns at the points the children marked, their efforts bootless.
Malgremir could not be harmed by steel, lead, or matter made for firing.
Prayers were said against the creature, but they were ineffectual.
A Voodoo priestess was brought from the bayous south of New Orleans.
She brought garlic and woundwort, conducted exorcisms oral and textual.
Her incantations were for naught. That night, during her dreams,
A girl with a kind nature and gentle hand was consumed by Malgremir.
The townspeople sent the priestess away. The church was abandoned; still the wrongs kept on.
Children saw the monster in the night; street jokes grew black with fear.
More children were devoured; men mourned; women wept on.
School classes were cancelled, and the city council voted to desert.
Malgremir, placidly vicious, made a last raid, drinking drop by drop,
The lifeblood of sons and daughters, cracking and sucking their bones, savoring their hurt,
Until the townspeople vacated, and the demon-storm did stop.
Mr. Anderson left town in the fifth year of Malgremir’s ascendancy.
The erudite man left not for evasion, but to learn the solution to this fey riddle,
Searching far for a missive that would, for Malgremir, signal death’s embassy.
Long studied Anderson the lore housed in the fabled Alexandrian Library and the Bam Citadel,
But therein he found only hints and clues, trifling gestures as to the secret’s key.
Traveled he thence to the Beineke library of rare books and singular scripts.
Discovering there, at most, vague descriptions and veiled references to the monstrosity—
Yet also mention of a secret library whose doors open only during a total lunar eclipse.
A weathered volume, whose yellow parchment was delicate and cracking,
Told of doors in a Badakshan mountain that were fastened by a genius of the Dark Age
And which led a doughty traveler into an antique wasteland beyond all mapping.
The library, called Maktaba Ghazni al-Khan, lay at a desert’s edge,
And held within its labyrinthine shelves the scrolls of necromancy and power
That did at one time summon djinni, influence sprites, and banish Shayṭān.
And in the center of the Maktaba’s labyrinth was a glass for counting the hour;
Through its glass globes poured the very measurement of Time, in form of falling sand.
Deep study takes time. Seven years had passed since the monster’s ascendancy,
And again Mr. Anderson set out, now from Yale, now to Afghanistan,
For the matter that would snuff the fell creature’s lambency,
And restore fairness and order to the bedeviled land.
From Kabul he traveled the Hindu Kush road through cracking Soviet tunnels;
Thence from Fayzabad, Mr. Anderson set out by donkey,
With a guide promising to take him but halfway, to where the river funnels
Out past the old capital of Wakhan, Qila-e Panj, deep in the Wakhan Valley.
When the guide left Mr. Anderson, he had been traveling for a week.
He was tired, but he felt that his journey had barely begun.
He looked out of his spectacles, down his long nose, and he rubbed his cheek,
Taking in his surroundings. Tall, craggy mountains blotted out the sun.
The gorge that he was left in held nothing but sparse vegetation,
And the way forward appeared both trackless and treacherous.
He found himself longing for his music, his pleasant church, his former station,
And he had no desire to continue upon a path so adventurous.
Mr. Anderson made a few notes in his daily diary, then he laid out his bedroll and slept.
The stars wheeled magnificently above him; a snow leopard peered down on him,
While through the jagged peaks, the Persian wind galloped and swept,
And Mr. Anderson dreamt of caravanserai and carpets, shorn and silken.
In the morning, the sun illuminated the valley, and Mr. Anderson set forth.
He traveled for four nights through chancy mountain passes,
His faith in the book oft-times wavering, his compass steering him further north,
Until in the midst of his dangerous isolation, he came upon weirdly formed crevasses,
Whose lines of cleavage seemed symbolic or runic in nature,
As if fashioned by man rather than nature, and Mr. Anderson, studying the stone,
Noted how the shape of an arcade appeared within the granite architecture,
And that in the stony portal’s area there was a nearly seamless fault, thin as a crack in bone.
Here Mr. Anderson consulted his almanac, reassured himself of the upcoming syzygy,
And did then encamp before the fractured crag. There he remained for six nights.
On the seventh night, the lunar eclipse induced the nearby mountain creek to froth fizzily
And queer characters to luminesce in the adamant stone in tints of radiant blueish-white.
The fracture in the cloven stone did shine with that same color,
While strange shapes as of astrolabes, sextants, gnomonic sundials, and stars appeared.
Mr. Anderson—caught between exhilaration, hope, and dolor—
Observed the glow strengthen into an aura. And the night grew weird.
A flash of light. A purple fire. All at once, a door materialized.
Taking his water and his pack, Mr. Anderson stepped through the door,
And he found himself, quite suddenly, with the sun blinding his eyes,
For he was on reddish desert stone, swept as flat and clean as a palace floor.
Around him, in all directions, was a labyrinth of pathlessness.
There were no mountains to guide his way, no points of any kind.
The place was bleak and flat, dry and severe, wrathful and boundless.
Yet the learning from the Beineke manuscript sprang to his mind,
For its contents directed the traveler due west, two hundred-seventy degrees,
Until, it said, one meets “the fire in the desert”.
Ancient texts being mistily allusive by nature, Mr. Anderson had not fretted,
But now he wondered if greater consideration would have been wise.
But, he thought, it was not a mistake to be greatly regretted,
There being no other texts, to his knowledge, on the subject anyway.
So to the place where there was fire in the desert he bound himself,
Adjusting his pack’s straps, tightening his belt, setting out on his way,
And wondering, with black humor, of the feasibility of diagnosing insanity in oneself.
The thought preoccupied him as the miles turned to leagues under his feet,
And there was no change to the dullish red landscape
And only the compass’ needle to guide him as he crossed this desert sheet,
For he felt that certainly no other explorer could have survived this barren land, this plane shape,
For had another explorer gone but a degree astray in any direction,
Then assuredly death would have risen to meet them.
The wayward traveler would have, step-by-step, separated further from the connection
Until in the name of starvation or thirst, Death would greet them.
Yet Mr. Anderson found himself wondering if the desert were also a labyrinth for the mind,
Whether he truly was insane, for who had heard of such travelers, such places?
And he wondered how to test his insanity, for if the mind were cracked and brined,
How then to know the sanest of its many faces?
Doggedly, and by dint, Mr. Anderson continued onward.
The desert floor remained as flat as a chessboard, and he was its only wanderer.
The sky above was as blue as the sea, and the land as red as dried blood upon a sword.
For three days did Mr. Anderson continue on this path, as worried a ponderer
As ever there has been, nearly freezing in the desert night, doubting his sanity by day,
Until, at last, on that flat and featureless horizon that ringed ’round him,
There appeared to be a spark flickering in the distance.
Another day passed, and Mr. Anderson kept onwards, hopes now slim,
For his water had been used, and of more there was not a trace.
But the spark in the distance grew in size as he drew near,
Until he found himself standing before a hanging fire basket made of steel.
The fire basket hung from a chain that was supported by three legs welded to a sphere.
Inside the basket were logs that burned but did not diminish, crack, or peel.
Mr. Anderson, reaching out to warm his hand upon the flame,
And looking around the desert in some confusion and no little concern,
Then saw the sand beneath the brazier suddenly shape itself into a sandy lane.
On either side of this new path and at regular intervals torches did burn,
And so, ducking his head beneath the fire in the desert, Mr. Anderson descended.
The path was narrow, soft, and mellow, and it soon gave away to a spiral staircase made of sand.
The recessed sconces lit the vertical passage with soft, flickering light, and, as he wended,
he saw that, at the foot of the stairs, the shaft did expand.
When he reached the bottom of the sand-stair, Mr. Anderson found himself in a chamber.
The walls, ceiling, and floor were constructed entirely of sand,
And the room appeared to be round like a wheel laid upon its side.
A single shelf, stocked with ancient books, circled the room like a band,
And, at the center of the room stood another hanging fire basket, six feet tall, two feet wide.
Of the fabled hourglass of time there was no trace,
So Mr. Anderson wondered if there were yet more secrets within the labyrinth,
And whether those secrets held the hourglass in a hidden space.
There was, too, in the room, a kind of plinth,
And upon that plinth stood an unmelting block of ice.
The place held the mysterious air of an enigma;
Thus Mr. Anderson, feeling strange forces at work, was at the books in a trice,
Finding one leathery tome with the inscription, Mælgrymyr, beneath a lunate sigma—
Or perhaps a crescent moon—and, opening the book,
The learned scholar saw an illustration of that thing the children had limned.
As Mr. Anderson took a steady and careful look,
A grain of sand, then another, fell from the ceiling onto the open volume.
Rapidly then did he scan that venerable text for clues on how to slay the beast,
As his mind, able in reckoning, leapt at once to the affairs as they had come to pass:
That, surrounded by fire and ice and texts, he himself was in Time’s frothy yeast,
The room was but a chamber, a globe in Time’s hourglass,
And as the hidden library slowly disintegrated,
Mr. Anderson felt his reasoning fragment,
And the ice, dripping water, did at that time ablate
While the fire did flicker, sputter, and stagnate.
As Mr. Anderson gained more knowledge, the labyrinth crumbled.
Sand poured from the ceiling, onto the book, as Mr. Anderson lifted it vertically to read,
And, reading still, he made for the sandy staircase, reading as he stumbled.
Until at last, at the start of a paragraph, he saw the Latin lead,
“Ab extra, ab initio, ad astra. The Monster, Mælgrymyr, having been called thusly, is not, in fact, named Mælgrymyr, and has only been so denominated by monks of the Apostolic order who follow His footsteps in the heavenly name of the Divine, and by servants of the Prophet, Peace Be Upon Him, and by those laypeople who speak of the Monster and know It by Its fiendish work. The true name of Mælgrymyr is a closely guarded secret, and it is thanks to anonymous, esoteric scholars—whose sedulous work and whose study of the arcane glyphs and ciphers found carved into long-buried ruins—that we of the Brotherhood at last learnt the true name of the Beast.”
As Mr. Anderson read on, the sandy chamber, already deteriorating,
Gave way faster and faster, ’til he wondered how much time had elapsed.
“Scholars now know the true name of the Beast, which, by saying its name, will spell the end of the Beast, and bring about Its sudden and immediate end. The Beast’s name is ‘Horace Anderson’. Ab extra, ab initio, ad astra.”
“Horace Anderson!” he said, aghast, his frisson of horror accelerating,
Then the ice evaporated, the fire extinguished, and the chamber of sand collapsed.