Your Letters

Your Letters
by Theodora Goss

You said you write me letters in your head.
Of course I never read them: they’re addressed
to her, the other me who also lives
inside your head, more perfect than I could be,
prettier, more sophisticated, probably taller.
She gets them, opens them at her kitchen table,
smiles, and then writes you back — almost immediately.

I’m sure she likes receiving them as much
as I like getting the ones you actually send me,
on paper that does not disappear when you turn
your attention to another matter —
the ones I save in a box labeled Sewing Supplies,
so I can pretend they’re less precious than they are.
I’m sure she likes seeing herself reflected
in your eyes — I wonder what you look like in hers.

To be honest, I envy her — she gets to live
in a country I’ll only ever be able to access
fitfully, intermittently. She gets to ride trains
to cities I’ve never even heard the names of,
that you visited once in childhood or perhaps
read about in a book from the library.
She gets to walk through forests you remember
beside streams you explored as a pirate or Robin Hood,
and sit in your teenage bedroom beneath posters
of bands that disbanded long ago, whose songs
you still have on cassette tapes. She’s met your mother,
thrown a ball to the smartest dog in the world,
tasted apple strudel the way your grandmother made it.
She gets to hear the music on your headphones
and wander around in your dreams.

Meanwhile I’m stuck with only what you tell me —
reports from a distant country, mostly at peace,
sometimes at war with itself. Some are long missives,
some are curt dispatches from the front lines,
or perhaps telegrams without punctuation.

Forgive me: you know I respect your privacy.
But someday, if possible, I would like to be privy
to this conversation.

(The image is Girl Reading Letter by Alfred Edward Chalon.)

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What the Ogre Said

What the Ogre Said
by Theodora Goss

Call to the willow,
the willow replies:
the little frogs’ eyes
watch you, my darling,
beneath the gray skies,
watch from the hollow,
liquid and yellow,
like jonquils, all guarding
my own pretty prize.

Call to the clouds
and the clouds call again,
to you, pretty girl,
through wind, through rain:
these elegant gauds,
the moon for crown,
and a starry gown,
are yours, my pearl,
my lily, my own.

Call to the river,
the river responds,
gurgling, the giver
of rivulets, ponds,
floods and slim trickles,
irregular bubbles
blown by small fishes:
I’ll tend to your wishes,
as burbling it bounds.

Call to me, darling,
I’ll make you an answer
you cannot despise,
the wildest romancer
with loveliest lies
inspired by your eyes,
surprisingly charming,
my pretty, my starling,
my sorrowful prize.

(The image is Inge by the Dark Lake by John Bauer.)

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Advice to a Daughter

Advice to a Daughter
by Theodora Goss

The moon’s the mistress for you: bind up your long brown hair,
and enter into her workshop, and learn her dark technique.
Learn to alter and falter and fatten, week to week;
learn to glide without turning, and silently stare and stare.

Learn her blank luminescence, and learn to daily draw
the seas of all the world without need of net or sieve,
to trail upon their waters one negligent white sleeve
and confound the bearded sages with inimitable law.

(The image is La Robe de Boudoir by Frank H. Desch.)

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Guinevere in Prison

Guinevere in Prison
by Theodora Goss

She clasped her hands, and she unclasped her hands.
She stood up, and she sat back down again.
She sighed and pushed back copper-colored strands
of hair, and sighed and listened to the rain.
The windows were barred; she stood and looked outside
between the bars, and saw the wet gray walls,
and watched a lone bedraggled pigeon stride
the battlements, and trickling waterfalls
form from the turrets. The banners hung soaked and limp.
She set her white hands on the windowsill
and left them until they were cold and damp.
She closed her eyes. And then that pigeon stole,
boldly, while she snatched a somewhat rest,
two strands to make a copper-colored nest.

(The image is The Prisoner by Evelyn de Morgan.)

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In the Snow Queen’s Castle

In the Snow Queen’s Castle
by Theodora Goss

I. Kay

Kay waits in the castle of ice, sitting
at the center of a lake made of ice, surrounded
by the pieces of a puzzle also made of ice —
everything in the Snow Queen’s castle is frozen,
everything is blue with cold, including
Kay himself. Although he still has a small fire
around his heart: you can see it through his translucent
blue chest. It has almost flickered out.

He still remembers what she told him when she drove
past in her sleigh drawn by seven white reindeer:
How do you know that you are truly loved?
If I took you now to my castle made of ice,
where the northern lights flicker above my bedroom,
where it is so cold your breath would turn to frost,
would anyone try to rescue you?
Gerda would come, he told her. Gerda loves me.
She would always come, even if she lost her shoes,
even by foot over Finland.

The Snow Queen threw back her head and brittle laughter
broke in the air, falling to the ground like snowflakes,
each perfectly different from every other.
No one is loved like that, my dear. Not even you,
with your blue eyes, so sincere,
your brown hair arching over your forehead
like a pair of swallows’ wings.
I’ll prove it to you, he said, hitching his sleigh
to hers. A moment later they were flying.

Now he sits on the lake of ice, trying to solve
the puzzle she set him, which is supposed to spell
the word eternity, but shattered long ago
into frozen shards, indecipherable.
If you can put it together again, she told him,
I will give you a pair of skates so you can return
to Copenhagen. Which is, he thinks, the only way
he will ever leave the Snow Queen’s castle.
He is realizing what a stupid boy he has been
to think anyone loved him so much, even Gerda,
who is no doubt still at home, learning
how to embroider various flowers on linen
from her grandmother.

He knows no one will come
and the fire in his chest, the small bit of fire
that is left around his heart,
will flicker out.

II. Gerda

Damn him, Gerda thinks, standing in the front hall
of the Snow Queen’s castle, her feet frostbitten
from walking over Finland.
Perhaps she should never have come, perhaps
she should have left him with that bleached strumpet.
She sighs, then walks forward on aching feet
to rescue the boy with blue eyes and hair
like swallows’ wings.

(The image is an illustration for “The Snow Queen” by Margaret Tarrant.)

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The Girl in the Tower

The Girl in the Tower
by Theodora Goss

When she learns her history, when she is told
by the vindictive witch that her mother sold
her for a mess of rampions,

she will cut off her hair, the long gold strands
lying in her hands, effective locking herself
into the tower, alone,

wanting no supernatural chaperone,
no prince to rescue her, wanting nothing
except her own mother,

the one thing she cannot have. Rapunzel will sit
with her shorn hair on a chair at the center of the room,
head bowed in mourning.

The birds will bring her food, she will drink the rain,
the wind in the trees will sing to her again,
but who will comb her hair

until it grows once more in a golden tangle,
long enough to reach the ground, so the girl
can escape her grief and pain?

(The image is an illustration for “Rapunzel” by Emma Florence Harrison.)

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The Bear’s Wife

The Bear’s Wife
by Theodora Goss

I went to the bear’s house
reluctantly: my father would have a pension
for his old age, my mother a pantry filled
with food for winter. My brothers would go to school,
my little sister — all she wanted, she said,
was a dolly of her very own. I went
dutifully. Like a good daughter.

In the bear’s house there were carpets with dim, rich colors
from Isfahan, and mahogany furniture,
and brocade curtains. More bedrooms than I could count,
a ballroom in which I was the only dancer,
a library filled with books. And electric lights!
But I chose a candle to see him by — the bear,
my husband. The wax dripped.

He woke, reproaching me, and it was gone —
house, carpets, furniture, curtains, books,
even the emptiness of empty rooms.
I was alone in the forest.

If I returned to my father’s house, they would greet me
with cakes and wine. My mother would draw me aside.
This is what comes of marrying a bear, she would say,
but now it’s over. You can live a normal life,
marry again, have children that are not bears,
become a respectable woman.

There was the path back to my father’s house.
Instead I turned toward the pathless forest,
knowing already what the choice entailed:
walking up glass mountains in iron shoes,
riding winds to the corners of the earth,
answering ogres’ riddles. And at the end
the bear, my husband, whom I barely knew.
And yet I walked into the dangerous trees,
knowing it was my life, knowing I chose it
over safety, maybe over sanity. Because it was mine,
because it was life.

(The image is an illustration by John Bauer.)

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