Categories
Poems

Once More Into the Void

This poem tells of four seasons, and of how we continue spinning on and on, through outer space.

It is written in free verse.

Pieter Brueghel the Younger - The Four Seasons
Pieter Brueghel the Younger – The Four Seasons, 1624.

The Earth revolves, and seasons change.
Foliage turns red, brown, orange, and black.
Horses snort. Their breath rises.
Their hooves crunch through fresh snow.
Now the fawns are born.
They are brown, soft as butter, with white spots.
Their legs tremble.
In comes the sun. High overhead,
Its heat leaves the air shimmering.

At the amphitheater, a musician
Mops the sweat from his eyes,
Folds his cloth, and returns it
To his breast pocket. A crowd
Is sitting in the fresh green grass.
He puts the bow to his cello,
Turns to the band, and he calls,
“One more time around!”

Categories
Stories

The Skeleton Train

The Skeleton Train is the story of a train of skeletons who steam into a quiet village on one snowy winter’s night.  They are celebrating a girl, and her father–a terrible, violent man–cannot understand why.

I wrote The Skeleton Train when I was 23, then I did nearly nothing with it for more than a decade.  But the story always stayed on my mind.  When I re-read it yesterday, I only changed a few commas here and there, and I took out a pair of words that I added seven years ago; they were not part of the original draft.

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Skeleton wedding.  Nov. 11th, 2014, Mexico.  For Death don’t us part.

Snow fell, and the wind pushed it into drifts.  Railroad tracks carved past glacial lakes. The night slept: the trees resting their needles, the drowsy flakes blanketing the white hills, the mute town lights in the distance winking good night.

Aboard the screaming train, the skeletons shrieked.

Inside the compartment, fire red rugs rippled, and candles swung on a chandelier, flinging wax and spitting drops of fire. Splintery tables and chipped chairs rocked side to side and beat against one another’s legs as the silver, speeding train yanked around corners and bulleted up and down hills. Scenery whipped by the window: trees, boulders, and mountains.

The skeletons wore gruesome grins, and their heads were bone-white, round, and rough. Their arms flailed, long and fleshless; the skeletons stretched them out above their heads, pushed them down below their waists, sashayed them at their sides. Circling madly the room, shrieking, throwing their heads back, shaking their hands in the air, pushing off chairs and tables, the skeletons clattered their bones with their dance, and their shadows—hideous, porous—were thrown against the walls by the candle chandelier.

Ahead of the silver train, a tunnel yawned.

The train shot through the tunnel, throwing the skeletons’ car into near blackness, the compartment lit only by the swinging chandelier. Magnified in the tunnel, the train’s screams rose shrilly, cracking the silence of the peaceful night. When the train shot out of the tunnel, a light in a hushed, distant town winked yellow. As the train steamed nearer, lights in the town began flicking on. The lights winked one at a time, then a few at a time sporadically throughout the town, then in great numbers, until the whole town was lit, and the town clock—which read twelve minutes to the witching hour—was bathed in an artificial glow.

With a wail of brakes the skeleton train, whose windows were dark nightmares, save for the single lit window through which the skeletons could be seen, screeched into the station. A whoosh of its brakes announced the termination of its journey, and the locomotive exhaled a jet of white steam which hung sleepily in the snow chilled air. Some of the town’s folk nearest the station came to their doorsteps, but none spoke. Many people wore pajamas with slippers on their feet. Other people stayed inside, wrapped in robes, their faces pressed against the glass of a window to see the spectral sight.

The train door slid open, and an inferno of red light silhouetted the skeletons. The skeletons stood in the doorway. There were five, all identical. One stood with crossed legs, and an arm hanging by its side. This skeleton leaned against the frame of the train door, and it drummed its fingers slowly on the metal frame, one after the other. The pinky started first. One. The ring finger followed. Two. Then all the skeleton’s fingers clicked against the cold steel frame. A second skeleton stood with crossed arms, and a third skeleton slowly extended its arm out the train door and turned over its hand. The skeleton extended a single finger, and on its tip landed a snowflake.

A few moments passed in undisturbed silence. Then the five skeletons hopped from the train, their bones bending so their elbows nearly touched the ground when they landed. The snow before the skeletons had already been trampled; footprints meandered across the snow and a red splash lay in a frozen pool from a littered raspberry ice. Slowly, their knees bending, their hollow eye sockets searching, their arms swinging at their ossified sides, the skeletons proceeded up the main street of the town.

The street was an old one, older than the town. The houses that lined the street were pushed together, like the apartments of New York City, and before each house lay a tiny plot of land for a front yard. The land seemed not much bigger than a postage stamp. The houses were narrow, mostly two stories, sometimes three. The windows were lit. The street terminated in a doughnut shaped cul-de-sac, and the tall town clock, which read five minutes to the witching hour, stood stiff as bone in the center of the circle. With a gold façade and architecture like Big Ben, this timekeeper gonged the hours.

The skeletons walked down the street, pausing now and then to look at the numbers on the doors. Snowflakes fluttered through their ribs, and a rogue flake fell into the eye socket of one skeleton. The skeletons turned their heads; they took measured steps. One checked the clock. There still were no sounds in the street, and the white jet of steam that the locomotive had released hung dormant in the air.

Watching from their doorstep was an old couple. The man wore blue striped pajama pants, brown leather insulated shoes, and he held an unlit pipe between his teeth. His wife—stooped, bent, with silver hair kept in a bun by a tortoiseshell clip—stood by his side. She kept a cane in her right hand, gold-rimmed glasses on her nose, and her breath blew pearl smoke from ancient lips. As the skeletons passed by, viscous as deep sleep, her nod of recognition was nearly imperceptible.

The skeletons stopped at a door near the end of the street. It was the door to one of the few single story houses, and a mother and daughter stood staring through a window. She was taller than her mother now, wearing short blue shorts and a t-shirt. One of the skeletons raised its hand to knock. Its hand paused, rapt and pristine in the cemetery silent air, before falling with a hollow sound upon the door. At the precise moment the skeleton’s knuckles rapped the door, the bone stiff clock in the cul-de-sac gonged the witching hour.

The door creaked open, and a man’s head filled the space between the door and the frame. He peered out, ghastly and thin, with a shriveled mustache and brown and white thin hair to his shoulders.

“What do you want? I’ve got nothing for you. Get on with yourselves.”

The man began to shut the door, but the skeleton who had knocked lifted a finger in the air. As the man closed the door further, the skeleton gently laid the tip of its finger against the door and pushed the door open wide. On the skeleton’s face was a hideous grin, and each skeleton behind this first wore the same. The five skeletons walked in, and the last skeleton, nodding, shut the door. It put its arm against the door, turned the handle, and pushed the door closed, never making a sound.

“They’re lovely,” the young woman whispered.

“Yes. They are,” murmured her mother distantly, remembering the time she had seen them before. She squeezed her daughter’s shoulder.

The five skeletons stood near the end of a long table. The tablecloth was frost white, immaculate, and on it stood two candles with tapered, Christmassy light bulbs in place of wicks. The skeletons looked around the room slowly, and one skeleton picked up a picture off the top of a black piano near the fireplace. The skeleton wiped away a hazy film of dust. The photo showed the young woman as an infant, bundled in pink wool. The skeleton set the photograph back in its place.

The father had backed away when the skeletons came into the house, but now he stepped forward, “You can’t come in here,” he said loudly, gesturing toward the door with his hands. “I didn’t invite you in.” His hands gripped the back of a chair so hard that his veins pulsed.

He tried shooing them to the door again with his hands, then turned his head towards his daughter, “Run to your room Wendy, quick now!”

“No, I’ll stay to see the skeletons.”

“You’ll do what I tell you,” he answered, keeping his eyes on the skeletons.

A skeleton dragged a finger across the tablecloth. The skeleton turned its hand over and looked at its finger, which had not a trace of any dust.

“I washed it today,” said Wendy, before she thought not to let her secret out.

“I’ll thank you to shut your mouth,” said Wendy’s father. “And I’ll ask you another time,” turning back to the skeletons, “—because I’m being as nice as I know how—to get out of my house before I get angry.”

The skeleton who had wiped its finger across the tablecloth showed its spotless finger to the other four skeletons and snapped the fingers of its other hand. One skeleton leaned over to examine the finger. This skeleton stretched out a finger of its own, to touch the finger that had touched the cloth. Bone touched bone.

Another skeleton looked at the finger. This skeleton tossed its rough, bald head back, opening wide its mouth in voiceless laughter, its thin fingers wrapping around its ribs. A fourth began to jig its feet, its toes clicking on the hardwood. It opened its mouth, as if it was shouting.

“What are you doing?” demanded Wendy’s father. “I want you out of my house!” He picked up the dining room chair by its back, and he slammed it against the floor. Its legs produced a cacophonic clatter.

Wendy’s father stood at the corner of the long dining table, his whiskered jaw jutting and his hair hanging down like icicles from bad water. A few feet away stood his wife and Wendy, and across the table, a few steps past its end, a fireplace sunk into the wall with red embers still breathing in the crevices of black logs. Wendy’s father eyed the poker, heavy black iron, standing near the hearth.

Wendy’s mother followed his eyes. “Oh God, Jim,” she murmured so softly only she could hear, “Why is it always violence?”

The skeletons paid him no mind. The skeletons shrieked, circled, linked hands. They tossed back their heads, swinging their shoulders, kicking their feet, laughing soundlessly.

“They’re so joyful,” whispered Wendy.

“I’ve had enough!” Jim roared, gripping the dining room chair and tossing it against the wall so hard that one leg cracked. “Get out, you demons! Get the hell out of my house! You come in here without my permission, and I’ll break your bones!” Rushing to the fireplace, Jim snatched the poker up, accidentally catching its hook on a log in his haste, sending sparks whizzing up the chimney and rolling the logs.

“You two, to your rooms, the both of you! I’m throwing these skeletons out of my house!”

“Don’t you understand?” exclaimed his wife. “They’re celebrating for Wendy!”

He turned, leering through crooked teeth and past the thin strands of hair that covered his eyes. “You’ll both do what I say you will, otherwise I’ll make you feel my palms!”

At that, the skeletons’ dance stopped. The skeletons ceased their muted laughter, silent singing, and noiseless shrieking, craning their necks and peering forward with ghastly grins to observe the scene.

“Daddy, don’t, don’t, don’t!” pleaded Wendy. “Haven’t you seen them before?”

“He hasn’t seen them before,” said her mother, keeping her eyes fixed on Jim. “I never knew your father when they celebrated for me. He can’t know. But we can help him understand. Just listen to us for a moment, will you? The skeletons, Dear, they’re here—”

“They’re here for Wendy! I heard you the first time—But what kind of creature do you want to have in your house? A monster? If you want to be their mistress, Dear, go on and take ’em—side with a skeleton over your own flesh and blood husband.”

“Oh, no no no no no! it’s not that at all!” his wife cried, “You don’t understand! You never understand!” She looked across the long dining room table, seeming to plead him with her eyes. “Say something,” she begged, holding her hands together. “Say anything! Help me, won’t you? Just a little?”

“Just go to bed, will you?” her husband said, tucking his hair behind his ears. “Or do I have to use force?”

She looked at him, knew his face, and clutched her daughter’s arm. “Wendy… Honey… I’m so sorry… Let’s just go to bed, now dear. We have to go to bed.”

“Mom!” cried Wendy. “Don’t! It’s my night!” She yanked her arm away, crossing her arms across her chest. “I want to see them! I’m going to stay!”

“You’ll go to bed, girl, when I say you will!” he said, keeping a wary eye on the skeletons.

“I’m not your girl anymore.”

“You’re my baby until I tell you otherwise. Now. To bed, the both of you!”

“I won’t.”

“Honey, please,” implored Wendy’s mother, taking her daughter’s hand, keeping her eye on the poker the whole while.

“Why?!” exclaimed Wendy, gesturing with her hands, “The skeletons have come to celebrate me!”

“Because I said so!” He took two quick steps towards her, and Wendy and his wife screamed and fled the dining room.

Jim turned to the skeletons, his fist clenched near his chest, “And I’m coming now for you, I am—and I’ll show you the poker. I’ll break your bones!” He heard two doors slam shut in succession and two locks turn. “By God! I won’t have doors locked in my house! They’ll never keep this man out!”

Poker in hand, he darted from the room and disappeared down the poorly lit hallway. A heavy thud could be heard, and a shrill scream flickered from behind a locked door. The sound of crunching, tearing wood could be heard.

The skeletons turned towards one another, staring into one another’s eye sockets. One dragged a finger across the table cloth again and showed it, as if to bring a second chorus of laughter, but the white finger only snuffed the electric candles and threw the room into a darkness so black that the white finger became luminescent. The finger glowed white in the inky darkness, and slowly the house lights were restored, until finally the skeleton’s finger no longer seemed to glow. A woman’s scream reverberated against the walls, and Wendy’s father cursed. The poker sounded again on that locked door. One skeleton opened the house’s front door, and the remaining four skeletons followed it outside. The shutting of the front door muffled the screams within. The street stretched empty. Snow fell. The snow which had been earlier trampled by boots had become soft dimples by the falling snow. The town’s clock, even from a distance, seemed taller.

Chancing to look from her window, the old woman with the silver hair saw the skeletons. “Harry! Come look!” After a few moments, her husband joined her at the window. “The skeletons are going back to their train – it’s only a quarter past the witching hour!”

“Something’s gone wrong,” he agreed.

“I bet it was that awful father,” she mused, “Look at how those skeletons slink! They ought to be dancing!”

“They ought to be, I know.”

“Do you remember what it was like for us, that first time?”

“I do.”

Silence.

“It was that husband!” she said again. “He doesn’t understand anything, and I know Christine had Alan before him; why, everyone in town knew but Jim, he was so blind.”

She paused, tracing her finger up and down the curtain. “They were coming to celebrate Wendy, and he ruined it for her.”

“It’s the way of the world, honey,” her husband said sympathetically. He took one last look at the skeletons then hobbled back to bed.

Categories
Poems

Music in Winter

Music in Winter is a rhyming poem that was written just after The Arrival of Autumn.

It’s written about a young couple who are in love and who are walking on a cold, dark beach.  The stars are out.  The clouds are scudding in front of the moon.  The couple’s feet are bare.  The rhyme scheme is abab.

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Outside Marmul, Afghanistan.  2010.

In winter, along the grey and green northwestern shore,
the freezing ocean draws its briny waves and bubbling foam
over beach crabs, Nautilus shells, and the crow-combed floor
as the sun sets beyond the sea into her western home.
Then the stars come out. One by one, they start to appear.
They are like lighthouses in the cold, black galaxies of space,
each with a message that says, Here, there are planets here,
circling round and round, far away, revolving round a fiery base.
And then, floating up from the water, comes the crescent moon,
scythe-like, Arabesque, swathed by scudding silver clouds,
and blinking behind a raven who flies, witchlike, through the woven gloom,
through winds whose warp and weft are the cloth of night’s dark shrouds.
In the midst of this a couple wander onto the sands.
They are lit by moonlight. Her hair is long; their feet are bare.
They walk like lovers and intertwine their hands.
They stop at sea’s edge and breathe the salty air.
It is a dark, cold night. A vagrant cloud covers the moon.
Not a light, not a lamp, not a glow can be seen.
The music of the ocean’s combers is an ancient tune.
The rustling of the firs lends woodwinds to the night’s song,
while the girl adds vocals to the primordial, ancient endeavor,
singing into the wind, into the wilderness, into the wild, high and strong,
a song that lasts a moment, with notes that last forever.

Categories
Poems

Jack Frost Endeavors to Keep Winter

Jack Frost, the personification of winter, speeds forth in an icicle train to the north pole to stop spring from coming. To stop spring, Frost must keep winter’s candle lit.

Frederic Edward Church - Red and Green Northern Lights Over Seascape
Frederick Edwin Church – Aurora Borealis, 1865

Through the snowy passes
Hurtles an old and hoary train.
It dashes past crevasses
Along the cold moraines.

Its transit is annuary—
Only once in ice and snow—
Only deep in January
Is the Icicle Train prepared to go.

And how extraordinary
This Icicle Train is to see
It seems imaginary
As it curves ’round glaciers and the scree.

Its locomotive is wrought of iron,
Embellished with curls and coils
With raveled figurines of wire on
Its smokestack, which blows and boils.

Its cars are made of stained glass
Each are as vitreous as the sea
The glass is mullioned in fine brass
With designs of spruce and cedar trees.

The conductor is an old man
Jack Frost is his true name
For longer than mankind’s lifespan
He has steered this venerable train.

He wears a jester’s cap of black and white
With five points that have five bells
And he wears a cloak that’s black as night
With gloves and shoes as white as shells.

He drives the train into the north
Where the bears and walrus live
Into dark lands where few rove forth,
Where the cold does not forgive.

What does the conductor seek there?
It’s a secret you should know.
He is searching with intent care
For a faint and feeble glow.

He seeks the flame of winter
Which gutters night by night,
The flame lies furthest hinter
Beneath dancing aurora light.

The flame of winter shudders
With each approaching spring
And when at last it gutters
The earth begins to green.

But Frost wants winter eternal—
A world of snow and ice—
So he strives to cease the vernal
Tidings by this particular device.

For if he can keep that cold flame
Burning in the north
Then he will meet his own aim
And spring shall not come forth.

So the Icicle Train speeds onwards
Through the snow and ice and frost
To thwart the coming season
And to render summer lost.

Frost stokes the boiler’s fire
He throws in wood and coal
So the flames in it lick higher
As he steams on toward his goal.

But the winter’s flame has dwindled so far
Even as he comes
The fire flickers beneath a bell jar
As the locomotive hums.

Jack Frost speeds across a prairie
Of flat ice and winter’s snow
Across dazzling ice that’s glary
Toward the paltry distant glow.

Now he’s very near it
And Frost will fan its flame
But the candle is but half-lit,
Or half-dead to say the same.

And then the fire does choke
And a tragedy strikes for him
The fire becomes a feathered smoke
The flame dies within the glim.

And although no word is spoken
There comes a thundering crack of ice
As winter’s spell is broken
And spring is taken from its glacial vise.

The Icicle Train must go back
For another long, green year
And Jack Frost with his coat black
Must take his bow and disappear.

But this is not forever—
Every year he tries his worth—
And in eras when Frost was quick and clever
We’ve had a snowball earth.

But this year he’s been frustrated
And the north sounds with his rage
For Frost will never be placated
Till we live in a perpetual ice age.

Categories
Poems

Jake Attempts to Put a Santa Claus Hat on a Nineteen Hundred Pound Bucking Bull

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It was the night before Christmas
And way out in the field
Jake had an idea
Which held marvelous appeal!

Jake said, “Come to the next pasture—
I’ve got an idea for a dare!
We’ll visit Farmer Bixby’s old stable;
He keeps his bucking bull there!”

So the four friends marched over,
Through the snow and the fog,
Past barbed wire fences
And over iced logs.

With each step they crunched
The cold, glittering snow
And steam rose from their mouths
With each breath they did blow.

There in the distance
With not a light from within
Stood the old battered structure
Which kept the bucking bull penned.

At first there was no sign
Of the great bucking bull
Then they smelled on the clear air
The scent of that huge animal.

Then at last they saw it!
It lay curled in deep sleep,
Like a monstrous black boulder
On the far side of the keep.

Jake rubbed his hands happily
And said, “This will be a neat trick—
I’ll put my Santa Claus hat on the bull,
And he’ll be a bovine Saint Nick!”

His friend Chris was the calm one,
And he said, “Well, for my part,
I think that bull is a mean one—
He gored my old dog through her heart!”

But Jake’s other friends shushed Chris,
And they cheered for Jake’s plan,
Saying that this Christmas spirit,
Was the best one for a man!

You needed no bells or whistles
Nor flouncy decorative halls!
You just needed good buddies,
And a big pair of balls!

So Jake slipped over the railing
And into the pen,
As his friends they grew quiet
And looked on with great grins.

Jake slowly crossed over
The ground of the sty,
And he was quite near the bull
When it opened one eye!

Jake froze on his tiptoes,
With the Santa hat in his hand
And he murmured some calm words
That the bull did not understand.

The bull sprang to its feet,
And it started to run—
Moving quite quickly
For something weighing a ton!

Now Jake started to run
Like a sprinter, world class,
When the bull lowered his head
And put his horns up Jake’s ass!

Jake’s friends looked on in horror
And they grimaced in fright
When, with a flick of its head,
The bull made Jake take flight!

Jake went sailing and screaming
Through the dark sky
And landed in cow pies
On the far side of the sty.

His friends they raced to him,
For he moved not at all.
They were sick to their stomachs
From witnessing his fall.

The bucking bull watched them,
Snorted, and pawed the cold ground,
Then it turned in a circle,
And plopped right back down.

It lay on its haunches,
Relaxed in its pen,
Nearly completely assured
That he wouldn’t be bothered again.

Jake’s four friends they reached him,
And found him hurt but not dead,
He grinned up at them weakly, saying,
“The best place for that hat is my head!”