Thorns and Briars

Thorns and Briars
by Theodora Goss

I locked my heart in a box
and put that box on a shelf
high in the room of a house
surrounded by thorns and briars.

They parted to let me through,
then closed behind me again,
and I went out into the world
unafraid, because heartless.

I did the work I was told,
completed the tasks I was given,
nodded and smiled, so they thought
I was such a reliable girl.

But all that time, my heart
was beating in a box
made of some fancy wood
inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

I gathered credentials, gained
titles and honors, was granted
suitable recompense —
while the thorns and briars grew higher

until you could no longer see
the small gray house behind,
and my heart was safe on the shelf
from either theft or scrutiny.

The thorns and briars will only
part for the one predestined
to rescue my heart from the box —
so someday, I’ll return

and open the gate. Then the tangle
of thorns and briars will part
to make a path to the door
of the house, and all the roses,

the simple dog-roses, the elegant
albas, gallicas, portlands
on those canes will burst into bloom,
white and pink and red.

In the room, surrounded by books
and dust, I will take the box
off the shelf and reclaim my heart
as preordained.


(The painting is Sleeping Beauty by Sir Edward Burne-Jones.)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Words

The Words
by Theodora Goss

Sometimes the words decide
they don’t like me anymore.
They don’t want to sit next to me on the bus
or hold my hand in the store —
they walk behind me in the public park
as though we weren’t related at all.

Why are you angry? I ask them.
Have we quarreled? What did I say?
They just look away.

I tell myself it’s simply a phase
that words go through.
They don’t always feel about you
the way you feel about them:
affectionate, solicitous, protective.
They can be as unruly as children,
as disdainful as cats,
scattering this way and that.
Form a proper line, I tell them,
and they won’t.

All day long they’ve disobeyed you,
leaving their toys on the floor
so you stumble over legos and neglected dolls,
or tugging at the hem of your dress,
asking for ice cream.
You secretly dream
of telling them to go to hell
and becoming a plumber, a seamstress,
something practical.

Finally you go to bed, exhausted
of the struggle.
And suddenly, there they are —
curled up against your back,
snuggling under your chin.
Damn them! But you can’t help
reaching out to stroke their soft fur,
forgiving all, tucking them in.


(The image is With Thoughtful Eyes by Jessie Wilcox Smith.)

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Vivian to Merlin

Vivian to Merlin
by Theodora Goss

I called you, and you would not answer me.
What power was it that trapped you in the oak?
They blame me, saying I have cast a spell,
but even if I had that sort of knowledge,
I would not hold you.

When I was young, a girl in Lyonesse,
a prince’s daughter running through the fields,
where all the peasants greeted me, or forests,
where I could call the birds down from their nests,
my two braids swinging,

I found a wounded raven, lifted him,
carried him back into my father’s castle,
placed him inside a basket on the hay
I’d stolen from the horses.  There he sat,
regarding me

with his black eyes, eating the worms and insects
I brought him. And eventually the wing,
which had been wounded by a dog perhaps,
holding the raven in its mouth, was healed.
At first he flew

around my room and perched upon the chest,
the windowsill. You know this story ends
the day he flung himself into the air
and flew over the fields, back to his forest.
Its moral is

you can’t hold what you love. Not for a moment,
not for a century. It must have been
another magician, as powerful as yourself,
or a giant who just happened to have a curse
handy. It must have.

I sit here with my back against the oak,
hoping it was a curse and not your choice.
(But who could trap Merlin himself? I could not,
despite the magic you have taught me.) Love,
if you can hear me,

as you sit curled inside the oak tree’s bole,
just tell me this: that it was not by choice
you left me, weary of our days and nights,
by daylight casting spells, by night lying
entwined, together.

You can’t hold what you love. I would not hold you —
but I had hoped that you would choose, yourself,
to stay with me. And yet you sit there, curled
in silence, Merlin of the silver tongue,
and I wait, hoping . . .


(The image is The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones.)

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment


by Theodora Goss

Sometimes I would like to be very small
so I could curl into a snail’s shell,
or a seashell: abalone, nautilus,
even an oyster shell.  I would let the oyster
cover me with layer on layer of nacre,
come out shining.

Sometimes I would like to be very small
so I could hide myself inside a flower,
between the petals of a tulip or crocus,
inside purple or crimson walls, like a genie
in her bottle.  I would emerge covered
with pollen, riding a bee.

Sometimes I would like to be small enough
to live in the hollow of a tree, like a bird
or squirrel.  I would dress in leaves, eat acorns,
make a coat of felted fur.  I would live alone,
hiding, hiding, always hiding,
because the world is full of large things
that are too large, too loud.
Over them, I can’t hear
the sea whispering, the beat of the bee’s wings,
the annoyed chuff of a robin.

I would like to be small enough to see
and hear the dawn breaking, the tulip opening,
the sand as it shifts under each tide,
the long dream of rocks.


(The image is Cock Robin and Flower Fairy by Kathleen Wallis Coales.)

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Quiet Woman

The Quiet Woman
by Theodora Goss

They did not notice her: they never do.
She lived there many years and never said
a single thing to shock them.  Pleasant, kind,
and inconspicuous as the small gray mouse
whose progeny the house cat sometimes caught,
she gave less to complain about than the creaking
stair, the shutter that always hung awry.

A quiet woman.  Yet all those years, her mind
was filled with turbulent seas and the wild cries
of seabirds.  From it, stars were visible,
arranged in constellations never seen
elsewhere.  While she sat knitting silently,
savage wars were being fought between
soldiers with an orange sun on their breastplates,
tribesmen whose pennants bore a silver moon.

While she drank her evening cup of tea,
she walked on distant hills we never saw,
beneath the slopes of mountains peaked with snow,
by waterfalls that roared and foamed, or cliffs
from which one could look down into abysses.
And while she sat and stared into the fire,
she dressed herself in darkness for strange balls
with dancers masked to resemble bears or foxes,
musicians playing invisible instruments,
the ballroom long ago fallen into ruin.
Her partner had no face, but waltzed impeccably.

She lived for years alone in a single room,
and nothing ever happened.  Each day passed
until the final day: a respectable life.

Now, I think, dressed in darkness and the armor
of the moon-tribe, she is leading desperate charges,
or sailing a ship with a dragon’s head on its prow,
creating an empire.  She will pluck the stars
for her crown, and rule the shores of an inner country
we were never allowed to enter.


(The painting is Vilma Reading a Book by T.F. Simon.)

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The Snow

The Snow
by Theodora Goss

Listen:  The snow is falling
with a whisper to the ground,
and it settles on the grasses
like a cold white shawl.

What do you think it whispers?
Just such a silent sound
as white cats make when passing
with white footfall.


(This poem was published in my collection Songs for Ophelia. The image is White Cat by M.C. Escher.)

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment


by Theodora Goss

The little man
tore himself in two.
What did the two halves do
after that?
Fairy folk don’t die
from such simple operations.

And no, they didn’t hop about,
each on a single leg.
Each half was a complete
facsimile of the original,
except that one was reversed:
a mirror image of the other.
One was left-handed, the other right.

The two halves stared at each other.
Brother, said one,
I shall go into the forest:
I’m done with humanity.
Let miller’s daughters ever after
suffer the consequences of their own folly.
I shall live alone, with only the birds and squirrels,
the occasional deer, for company.
I shall live off mushrooms, acorns, ferns,
eggs fallen from the nest, rose hips
and blackberries in summer: the forest’s bounty.
Dress myself in moss, breathe slowly,
become like the rocks.
I shall call myself Rumpel,
if you’ve no objection.

None at all, said the other half.
I, however, want to see the world,
live as you have never dared to.
Start as a thief, steal coins from the rich,
food from the poor.  Visit whorehouses.
Build my fortune, gamble with it —
win, lose, end up in debtor’s prison.
Drink dirty water, and a year later
fine burgundy, when I have regained my fortune
and more.  I shall have estates
in Germany, in France.  My mills will spew black smoke
over the countryside, manufacturing
fabric for elegant ladies, so they can wear
the latest fashions, my great looms
clacking and whirring like mechanical spiders.
That is the way to spin gold, brother.
When I am richer than the king,
he will offer me his daughter.
By then, I shall be Lord Stiltskin.

The two halves parted, with every sign
of mutual respect.  Neither
chastised the other.
There were no recriminations.

In each of us
there is a thief and a saint.
The trouble of it is,
we cannot part them.


(The illustration is by Anne Anderson.)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment