The Kreagra

The Kreagra
(Bronze, 450-350 BC)
by Theodora Goss

In a case in the Museum of Fine Arts
in Budapest, there is a kreagra.
It looks a bit like the end of a garden rake
if its tines resembled the arms of an octopus
on a Greek vessel, radiating over
the terracotta background, or a bronze claw
shaped like a flower, perhaps a chrysanthemum,
the kind with a single layer of petals curling outward
that you find in old Japanese prints.
The sign underneath explains that we do not know
what the kreagra was, or what it was used for.
In both English and Hungarian, it is called a kreagra
(so-called, says the sign, without saying who called it so,
or why), and Wikipedia,
that modern oracle, refers us back to
the object in the case in the Museum of Fine Arts
in Budapest, as though it were the only kreagra
that exists, or has ever existed.

The sign says it could have been used
to hold a votive torch or for roasting sacrificial
meat, but its use is uncertain.
Your guess is a good as the sign’s. What would you use
your kreagra for? Catching an octopus?
Raking a flowerbed filled with chrysanthemums?
I’m sure it would make an excellent toasting fork.
More practically, it has become a symbol
of how limited our knowledge really is,
how much we have lost, how much of human history
is a best guess, because what actually happened
has disappeared into the enveloping darkness
of time, like the (presumed) wooden handle
of the kreagra (so-called), or the (presumed) men and women,
huntsmen, fishermen, priestesses, who knows,
that used it once, and might have been able to tell us
what it is, what it meant,
what any of it meant.

(This is the kreagra from the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts. I have since learned that there are other kreagras — or kreagrae? — in various European museums. I still do not know what it is or does.)

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Easter Monday

Easter Monday
by Theodora Goss

In the city that has not been bombed,
there are people walking.
Some of them are clearly lovers,
some of them are just as clearly families
or friends — you can tell
from the way they walk together,
touch each other — the teenage girls
giggling over whatever they see on their cell phones,
the couple talking quietly, heads leaning
toward one another, the children on scooters, their father
also on his scooter, moving over the pavement
like ducks on a pond, with a similar
fluid buoyancy.
The woman sitting by herself on the museum steps,
intent on knitting something orange —
a scarf? For herself or her boyfriend,
brother, grandmother,
who have not been killed in a war.

The forsythia are blooming,
the lilacs are just beginning to bloom,
the periwinkles are blooming, blue and purple,
there are tulips.

In the city that has not been bombed,
the trams are running,
although the stores are closed for the holiday,
the holy day, which is why the church bells are ringing,
and the river is flowing, hopefully to another city
that has not been bombed,
under its bridges. The boats —
I can’t see them from here, but I’m certain
that the boats are still sailing
on the river, under the flags of different countries,
unfurling in the wind.

Meanwhile, here people are walking
under the trees, the beeches and birches
and ancient chestnuts,
which are lifting their candles,
their white candles,
amid the emerging green, as though celebrating
spring and rebirth in the city that has not been bombed
yet.

(The image is Union Square in Spring by Childe Hassam.)

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The Princess and the Peas

The Princess and the Peas
by Theodora Goss

It was raining.
It had been raining for four days
and you were as wet
as a wet pig, as your mother would say.
Water was dripping from your hair
down to your collarbones
and to your dress, already sopping,
rags, really — regulation wear for a pig girl.
At first you didn’t realize
it was a castle, and when you did,
what of it? A castle was as good
shelter as any other.

When you knocked on the door, the footman,
to your surprise, said, “Are you a princess?
They’re looking for princesses in here.”
His smirk, you realized, was not for you,
but them in there, intent
on a princess hunt.

“Sure,” you said. Why not?
What is a princess anyway?
You were the princess of a hovel,
a field of mud, a pigsty, a herd of porkers,
daughter of the pig-queen of a village
too small to have its own name,
Lesser Something.

What is a princess, anyway?
Someone who sleeps on a feather bed, evidently.
Make that fourteen feather beds.
The queen looked at you askance
of course, with your rags and hair dripping,
bare feed muddy from trudging
through what the rain had made of the roads.
But royalty, once they’ve given their word,
seldom go back on it, seemingly.
You said you were a princess, so
you got the feather beds.

Of course it was a test. What isn’t, in this life?
You had known that
as soon as the footman looked at you sideways.
You knew it twice as surely
when the prince looked at you sideways.
He was a scrawny kid. The pigs would
have made quick work of him.
But what was the test?
It had to be about the feather beds.
That was the only strange thing
in the room, which was otherwise
perfectly ordinary — for royalty, that is.
Bigger than your hovel, about as big
as your hovel and the pig field,
but with no pigs in it. You didn’t miss them.

The water in the bath was hot and scented.
You emerged from it hot, scented, and as pink
as a newborn piglet. You were surprised to find
that your hair was blonde, and actually rather pretty.
It was nice not to be quite so muddy, for once.
The nightgown was soft and white, pure linen.
You had never felt anything like it
before, never having had a nightgown.
You quite liked it. So what was the test?
It took you a while to find the peas,
but not too long. You were used to finding
bits of carrot under muddy straw,
turnip ends, cabbage leaves,
any other vegetables that had not rotted,
trodden on by the pigs.
You would put them back in the troughs.
No use wasting good food.
You could root out anything the pigs could.
They would have found the peas, easy.

It was not until the next morning, when the queen
asked, “How did you sleep, my dear,
were you comfortable?” with a certain
look in her eyes, a significance,
that you figure it out.
“Terribly,” you said. “Excuse me,
your majesty, but I thinking someone
accidentally left rocks in my bed.
I am of course grateful
for your hospitality, but I could not
sleep a wink.”

There was something in the way
she looked at you, a small, satisfied smile,
that clued you in to what was going on.
The weak prince, the queen
who was looking for, not a princess,
but someone clever enough to solve her riddle.
The right girl for her son, the right girl for her throne.
What is a princess, anyway?
A girl that people bow to and call princess.

They gave you fine clothes, silk of course, and ermine.
They gave you a crown with a pair of matching earrings,
diamonds and pearls. You considered, for a while,
whether to stay or abscond with the jewelry.
But the queen, looking at you approvingly,
after the ladies in waiting had finished their labors,
said, “You know, my dear, before I was queen,
I was a shopkeeper’s daughter.
That’s why my son insisted, in his wisdom,
on a true princess.”
“Of course, your majesty,” you said in your best
princess voice. “I understand completely.”

Anyway, why shouldn’t you be queen?
Ruling a kingdom
was probably no more difficult than ruling a pigsty,
keeping the peace among a bunch of hogs,
keeping the sows from sleeping on their young.
By and by, you would inform your mother
that she was now the queen of a faraway kingdom
called something like Porcinia.
You would bring her to court, give her the comforts
she’d never had. Yes, Ma would like that,
especially the baths.
Your children would be heirs to the throne,
and by the look of the prince, you would be the power
behind it, eventually regent.
Not bad for a pig-keeper’s daughter
who had set out into the world
to make something of herself, saying to her mother,
give me your blessing, Ma. I’ll be somebody
someday. Watch me.

(The image is The Princess and the Pea by Edmund Dulac.)

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The Poem

The Poem
by Theodora Goss

I had my list.
At the top it said To Do
and the date. It was organized
so neatly, with all the items
prioritized, with all I had to do
presented so clearly, completely.
I had already started checking off
some of the items:
— grade these assignments
— answer those emails
— do laundry.

And then there was a knock
on the door, an unexpected
interruption. Of course I answered.
After all, it might have been an emergency.
But no, it was just a poem,
wanting to talk.
So I made it some tea. What
do you want to talk about? I asked.
The sky, of course. It was bleak, gray,
a suitable backdrop for the black branches
silhouetted against it. And the seagulls
that perch on the pier posts,
indicating that yes, you have reached the ocean,
yes, the ineffable lies just beyond
those wooden planks, the waves of it
shifting, gray and white, giving you no answers.
And then it got onto
the lighthouse, which was some kind of metaphor,
and how quietly the snow falls,
blanketing us all in white,
like a shroud — not that, I said —
please, no clich├ęs. Would you like
another cup of tea? It’s cold outside.
Yes, said the poem. I have a bit of a sore throat.
I’ve been depressed, can you tell?
When I come back in spring, I’ll talk about —
no, not daffodils, that’s been done.
I’ll talk about hellebores and snowdrops
and hope. By this time
I was hopelessly off my schedule.
I would never get through my list.

But when they come to you, the poems,
with their threadbare clothes, holes
in their shoes, their trousers and shirt collars
much mended, their skirts patched,
wearing second-hand coats, what can you do
but let them in,
offer them tea and biscuits,
sit and listen?

(The image is The Tea by Mary Cassatt.)

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The Life I Wanted

The Life I Wanted
by Theodora Goss

One day I took the life I wanted
and bit into it.
It had been sitting in a blue ceramic bowl
of other lives, some red, some yellow,
some green — I thought those might be
too sour. I took the one I wanted,
red on one side, yellow on the other,
with a scattering of freckles.
It could have been painted by Renoir,
with sunlight falling on it from an implied
window, outside of which I could imagine
an equally implied summer. Bees
would have loved it.
It was vivid and, I thought,
probably sweet. So
I bit into it.

Yes, it was sweet.
It had not been grown in a commercial
orchard — it had bruises, brown spots,
even a hole where a worm might have bored
its way in. I had to eat around that.
But how sweet it was! All of the implied
summer was in its juice,
and its imperfections were the sign
of its authenticity. This life
had grown on a crooked tree
by some field where cows were grazing,
the sort of field covered with daisies
and chicory, from which you could glimpse
a grove of poplars and a river winding
away in the distance.
I had been hungry, and it filled me up,
until I felt like a child
tasting an apple she has picked
off the branch, juice running down her chin,
shouting, Mom, this one is mine!
I picked it myself!

(The image is Apples in a Dish by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.)

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Solstice Night: For My Daughter

Solstice Night: For My Daughter
by Theodora Goss

I imagine them meeting in the forest,
the new year and the old.
The old year is the age
I will be, my dear,
when you insist on holding my hand
as I cross the street, the way
I once held yours.
She will be a fierce old woman,
bent, but still strong,
with thin, sinewy wrists,
holding together a shawl as black
as a raven’s wing,
with small brown eyes
like nuts or seeds fallen on the snow
and a sharp tongue.

She will scold the new year:
Where are your mittens? Don’t you know
you could get frostbite? I can’t believe
your mother would let you go out
dressed like that.

And the new year in her silver dress,
a bright young thing with cropped hair,
ready for a party, covered
with spangles that make her look
as though she is wearing stars,
will say, Oh granny, I’m not cold!
What a glorious night, what a wonderful
new beginning. Come dance with me
in the moonlight, under the trees.
Then your bones won’t feel the chill
anymore. Could anything
be more delicious?

She could be your sister,
rebelling as you rebelled against
bedtime and mittens, the necessity
of a sensible coat,
because the world is new and the young
think they know everything.
The old year will, at her insistence,
take a few steps in a stately dance
they both know, a sarabande, although
the new year would rather cha cha.
The old year will shake her head, saying
to herself, under her breath,
Just wait. You will be
where I am now.

And you and I, my dear,
standing here between the new year
and the old, tired and anxious
about what the future will hold —
what should we do?
Let us take their hands, those two —
the young woman and the old,
the straight and bent, the luminous
and dark, the dove and crow,
new life and death.
We could do worse than learn
a few dance steps.

(The image is Masque of the Four Seasons by Walter Crane.)

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The House of Night

The House of Night
by Theodora Goss

I dreamed that I was walking through the house of night,
shadows behind each pillar, the ceiling above in shadow,
a full moon visible from every window,
the curtains open to darkness, and I was frightened,
because it seemed as though
the darkness came in and followed me, quietly,
on soft paws like a cat, and purring,
rubbed up against me.

I was almost certain the house was haunted
by a ghost, or something worse,
or perhaps was under a curse,
although I could not define
what sent such shivers up my spine
or made the hair on my arms stand on end.

I could not speak in that silence except to utter
under my voice, a small prayer,
so intangible it seemed like nothing,
a puff of air, or smoke that blows nowhere,
like the bodies that ghosts have when they emerge
from the medium’s mouth. Nevertheless, it was answered,
by whom, I’m not certain. The darkness? Myself?
I heard, in my head,
You are the ghost you fear, there is no curse
unless you cast it.

I looked, again, around the room,
at the high windows letting in the light
of the moon, and began,
feeling myself suddenly undaunted,
to haunt it.

(The image is On the Balcony by Childe Hassam.)

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