Girl, Wolf, Woods

Girl, Wolf, Woods
by Theodora Goss

There are days on which I am the girl in the woods
in my red cap, jaunty, with my basket, plentiful,
wearing my innocence like a placard.

There are days on which I am the wolf, slavering
for either seedcake or a grandmother,
on which I am a hunger waiting
to be fed, a need, a desire.

There are days on which I am the woods,
silent, impenetrable.

Let me wander from the path, gathering flowers,
for night comes all too soon.

Feed me, for I am starved.
I want wine and cakes and meat. I want
the girl in the red cap and neat
apron. I want to crunch her bones.
I want to lope through darkness.

Let me be still, let me grow and feel
sunlight on my arms, which are also branches.
Let me hear birdsong.

There was a girl with a red cap,
a chaperon as they called it in that region,
which was famed for lace-making.
She ventured into the woods. The sun
was shining, but it was cool under the trees.

There, she met a wolf who was hungry
not for herself, but for her pups,
born late in the season, whom she was nursing.
Give me wine, she said, so I may be strong,
give me seedcake, or I will gobble up
your grandmother, and then you.

The girl knelt and said, here is wine,
here is cake, here is meat, a cold chicken leg
wrapped in a napkin, packed in the basket
by my mother, who embroidered this apron
with a row of red hearts.
I was taking it to my grandmother,
who has rheumatism and cannot run far,
but would be tough anyway.
Come, eat. I will share it with you.

The branches above sighed
as the wind passed through them,
and farther down the path, in a cottage
surrounded by lavender and sage,
among which bees were gathering
nectar from the flowers,
her grandmother was snoring.

That is not how the story goes, you insist.
But that is how I prefer to tell it.

(The image is an illustration for “Little Red Riding Hood” by Honor Charlotte Appleton.)

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The Clever Serving-Maid

The Clever Serving-Maid
by Theodora Goss

Here are the things your mother did not give you:
a chest filled with linens for your marriage bed,
a casket of jewels to wear on your wedding day,
a handkerchief spotted with her own red blood,
a talking horse named Falada.

Here are the things she did: your life, of course,
a tendency to get in and out of trouble
since you were a scullion. And now here you are,
so grand, a lady’s maid, but you are thinking
you could be grander still. So you tell the princess
to put on your plain brown linen while you dress
yourself in her sky-blue silk. It suits you better
anyway. And then you get on Falada.

The prince doesn’t even noticed the substitution.
Why should he? You’ve been in service since you were twelve.
You can sound as articulate as a duchess,
or more so, the way the butler is somehow always
more impressive than the king.

But you have to shake your head when you look out the window
and see her in the courtyard — the princess is hopeless
at tending geese. She’d make a terrible queen.
If she can’t control a flock of geese, how can she
control a household, a diplomatic mission,
troops sent into battle? Queens have to know
these sorts of things, not just embroidery.

And look at the stable-boy pestering her! You would stick
your knife into him — then he’s stop being obnoxious!

You’re sad when Falada dies, which wasn’t your doing.
He was an old horse — what did anyone expect?
But the princess is inconsolable, cries all day,
her soft white hands are developing blisters, her nose
is getting freckled. All right you say, let’s end
this charade. I’m not the princess.

The problem is, the prince has already fallen
in love with you, but he has a weak chin and eyes
like gooseberries. So you decide there’s adventure
out there somewhere, countries you have not heard of,
seas that have not been sailed, another future
than either the one reserved for serving-maids
or princesses. As you walk through the castle gates
(the king is threatening to put you in a barrel
filled with nails and have you dragged through the streets
as punishment, the prince is begging you
to stay, the princess is looking confused, as always),
the head of Falada calls from above the gates,
“Where will you go, false maid?” You answer, “Anywhere
I please, and nowhere in particular.”

The air is cool, the way it usually is
after a night of rain, the birds cacophonous.
The road winds through the town, then into forest.
Where should you go? East, you decide, where ahead of you
the sun has risen and shines on the dusty road,
making it seem, just for a moment, golden.

(The image is by Hermann Vogel.)

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The Gray Lands

The Gray Lands
by Theodora Goss

There are days when my heart is sick and my head is aching,
days when I just can’t go on anymore,
when rain comes down and soaks the autumn garden,
and wind blows in the door.

Then I pack my bags for a journey — pajamas, toothbrush,
sensible shoes — and I catch the morning train,
closing the gate behind me and leaving my house
to the relentless rain.

When I arrive at the tiny village station,
the pony trap will be waiting to take me home
along a road between two lines of birches
that have never been bent by storm.

There, in an attic bedroom, I will sleep
as dreamlessly as I slept when just a child,
then take a walk over the high green foothills
left unmown and wild.

There, my heart will feel what it was meant for —
the joy that precedes and sometimes follows pain.
I will remember why I must eventually
return to the world again.

But meanwhile there will be a friendly kitchen,
a cat that wants to curl into my lap,
a kettle singing to the spinning wheel,
tea in a porcelain cup.

Meanwhile I will find peace in my native country,
the strange and distant Gray Lands where I was born,
that you cannot reach unless you have a passport
and look a bit forlorn.

If you come, I will meet you at the station
and bring you back to Mother Night’s abode,
pointing out the poppies and cornflowers blooming
along the winding road.

(The image is Poppy Field, Argenteuil by Claude Monet.)

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That Sort of Day

That Sort of Day
by Theodora Goss

Today is the sort of day when everything breaks:
already, the dawn has broken, and the telephone,
and words don’t mean what they used to anymore,
and my heart is breaking, and waves continue to break
in foaming crests on the slick, moss-covered rocks.

Today is the sort of day on which we shatter
like glass, and all the pieces of us scatter
on the wind, when everything we had is lost
or left behind: the car keys, the grocery list,
the sensible mind. It is the sort of day
when I have dropped all the dishes on the floor.

There is nothing to do with a day like this but dedicate
it to grief and loss, to say let us walk on the shore,
where the sea crashes and slowly the land wears away,
and the moon rises, perfectly indifferent to us,
not caring at all whether we come or go,
or if we go, where it is we have gone.

(The image is by Gesso Yoshimoto.)

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Someday, Lilacs Will Bloom on Your Grave

Someday, Lilacs Will Bloom on Your Grave
by Theodora Goss

If you have never been beautiful,
you will become beautiful. Have you ever seen
the long, lean elegance of bone?
All that is unclean about you,
the degenerate flesh that longed and dreamed,
the stomach with its hungers,
the heart with its lusts, even the pink knot
of the brain with its strange fantasies, its belief
in the importance of the ephemeral,
will be long gone.

If you have never been famous,
you will become at least
this famous: a stone will proclaim
that you lived, which is finally
the most important thing about you:
that you were given the same chance
as the king of a mighty kingdom,
a mouse in the kitchen corner.

If you have never been wealthy,
you will be given what money can’t buy:
time to rest peacefully in the turning earth,
in still, dark soil with roots and worms
beneath the grass, beneath
an always-changing sky.
No millionaire sleeps as soundly
as the dead.

And if you have been all these things,
if you have known beauty, fame, wealth,
if in life you were one of the fortunate
who walked in gold, you will gain at last
anonymity, becoming one of many
in the fellowship of the dead, the poverty
of keeping all your possessions in one box,
the uniformity of being pared down
to your essential elements.

Do not be sad: you have been given
nothing and everything. Every spring,
the lilacs will wave over you.

(The image is Lilacs by Vincent Van Gogh.)

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Lilacs

Lilacs
by Theodora Goss

I have come this morning to bring you some news:
the lilacs are blooming.

When you walk along the street, you can smell them —
their fragrance floats in the air like a scarf
around the neck of a beautiful woman
named Spring.

(The image is The Lilac Tree by Ferdinand Hodler.)

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The Gentleman

The Gentleman
by Theodora Goss

Has the milk gone sour this morning?
Are there tracks upon the floor
where you could have sworn you swept
carefully the night before?
Are the window shutters open?
Did the clock forget to chime?
Could you simply have forgotten
to set the time? Surely not.

Are the chickens agitated?
Could a fox have come last night
and sniffed around their coop,
to put them in a fright?
There’s a fox that walks on two legs;
when he comes, the farmyard dog
pricks his ears and sits as silent
as a log. Unfortunately.

Is the horse’s mane completely
in a tangle, and its hide
crusted with the mud that splashed
from its hooves during the ride?
That’s how you know. The Gentleman
does love his nightly ride. And the maid
milking the cows this morning smiles
mysteriously. Oh, for goodness’ sake.

You should do something. Gather
the town together, determine to catch
the malefactor. How many of you
have had your tulips trampled,
your best cow addled, your daughter
suddenly dreamy? But. What
if he were brought to justice,
black boots in the courtroom,
black eyes laughing at you,
at the good wives, industrious,
neat as a pin in their cotton
gowns, making you feel,
well, ridiculous, and somehow flushed,

and worse, what if the cabbages
bolted, and the asparagus flopped,
and the squash were all infested
with worms. You can’t trust him.
And worse yet, what if the moon
refused to change, and the leaves
on the trees never caught the fire
of autumn. And it was your fault.

I tell you, my dear:

If the milk was sour this morning,
and the laundry is in knots,
if the geraniums are missing
from their flowerpots,
if the mice have gotten into
the bacon and the cheese,
laugh and let the Gentleman do
as he pleases. I know, what a mess.

But a robin’s on the handle
of the shovel, singing softly,
and the clouds are floating overhead.
Admit, the world is mostly
as it ought to be. Tonight the moon
will pull the distant tide,
and the Gentleman will come to take
his nightly ride. With a kiss for you

even if you don’t notice.
But my dear,
you do.

(The image is an anonymous eighteenth-century portrait of a gentleman.)

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