The Morning After

The Morning After
by Theodora Goss

Even on the morning after
a great tragedy, the world is still beautiful.
Should it be? I don’t know.

Perhaps after the slaughter, after
the bodies lying in a field, the houses burning,
clouds should no longer continue intermittently
concealing and revealing the sky. Perhaps leaves
should stop turning orange and yellow and red.
Perhaps they too should honor the dead.
But they don’t.

If anything, the world says to us:
my strange, impermanent children,
look at my mountains. Learn to breath, as they do.
Look at my forests, at the trunks of trees that have grown
over a century. Or the grasses, renewed annually.
They live and die, yet are no less important than the rocks.
The moth that lives for a day is as precious
as the tortoise.

Learn to love what you are: a part
of the whole. Do not divide yourself.
Do not think you are alone, or you alone
walk this earth. Wolves slip through the forest
and above you, wild geese are calling.
You are part of the family: let that be
not frightening but reassuring.

This morning, the river will not mourn with you.
It will continue to flow, as it has since before
you were born. But as you memorialize the dead
again, for this has happened before, it will remind you
that beyond strife and sorrow and anger,
the leaves are turning. That it is autumn,
and swallows are preparing
once again to fly south.

(The image is Autumn Landscape by Vincent Van Gogh.)

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My Pajamas Have Pockets

My Pajamas Have Pockets
by Theodora Goss

Today I discovered, to my surprise,
that my pajamas have pockets.

Tonight when I fall asleep
and walk along the shores of that sea
filled with stars like fish, or fish
like stars, I will collect
some of the shells scattered
among the rocks. They are as white
as chalk, streaked with verdigris,
slick and wet. When you pick them up,
they look at you like eye sockets.
And you wonder: what lived here, once
at the dawn of the world?

I will put them in my pockets
and climb the cliff,
past the grasses waving
like green tongues.

The shells are also coins.
I will give them to the raven
in the red kerchief, preaching revolution
and poetry. He will admit me
into the tower, and I will begin to climb,
around and around while above
the silver moon is chiming,
until I have worn through my slippers.
Finally, I will arrive
at the top where, among the clouds,
Mother Night sits
beside her spinning wheel.

“Come drink with me, daughter,”
she will say, and offer,
in a cut-glass goblet, elderflower wine,
on a porcelain plate, a ginger biscuit.

“Ask your question,” she will say, when I am full
and a little tipsy. “I would like to see
my life,” I will reply. “Is the thread long or short?
Silk or hemp?” She will laugh
and run her fingers along the thread
feeding into the orifice,
winding around the bobbin.
“Gold, daughter. All my threads
are gold. And you hold
the scissors. Here, for good luck.”
She will give me
a thimble like an acorn cup.

After curtseying awkwardly,
because how does one curtsey in pajamas anyway,
I will walk out the window into the forest,
where the birds are making a racket
and a rabbit is knitting
a small blue hat, like a beret.

I will buy it from her
with the gold thread wound
around and around my wrist.
She will insist on adding a bobble.
As I walk along the path,
the squirrels will admire me immensely.
The foxes will look at me askance,
until one of them invites me to dance.

The next morning, I will wake up
with an acorn in one pocket
and in the other, a blue knitted hat,
very small. I will have a headache
as though I had drunk too much,
and worn-out slippers.

Pockets on pajamas: seems
strange, doesn’t it? But
never let them tell you that pockets
are useless in the land of dreams.

(The image is Lady of the Night by Don Blanding.)

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The Ogress Queen

The Ogress Queen
by Theodora Goss

I can smell him: little Helios.
He smells of cinnamon
and sugar. I can smell him even though
he is down in the garden, playing with a ball
and his dog, whom he calls Pantoufle.
“Here, Pantoufle,” he cries. “Here, catch!”
I would like to catch him by the collar,
lick the back of his neck, suck up
the beads of sweat between his shoulder blades
(for it is a hot day, and there is no shade
in the castle garden except under the lime trees).
He would taste like brioche, oozing butter.
(Oh, his cheeks! so fat! so brown!
as though toasted.)
He would taste like sugar and cinnamon
and ginger.

And then little Aurora. She, I am convinced,
would taste of vanilla and almonds,
like marzipan. Less robust, more delicate
than her brother. I would save her for after.
Look, there she is in her white dress,
all frills and laces, like a doll
covered with royal icing,
rolling her hoop.
If I dipped her in water,
she would melt.

And walking along the path, I see
her mother, reading a book.
Love poems, no doubt — she is so sentimental.
She has kept every letter from my husband,
the king. She has kept,
somehow, her virtue intact, despite
the violation, despite the rude awakening
by two children she does not recall conceiving.
She resembles a galette:
rich, filled with succulent peaches
and frangipane. I will eat her
slowly, savoring her caramel hair,
her toes like raisins
dried from muscat grapes.
I will particularly enjoy
her eyes, which stare at me
with such limpid placidity,
as though she had not stolen my husband.
They will taste like candied citrons.

Today, today I will go talk to the cook
while the king is away at war
and order him to serve them up, one by one,
slice by slice, with perhaps
a glass of riesling. Then at last my hunger
for my husband beside me in the bed at night,
for a son to rule after him while I am regent,
for warm, fragrant flesh,
spiced and smelling of cinnamon,
may be appeased.

(The image is by Wladyslaw Theodor Benda.)

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Fairy Tale

Fairy Tale
by Theodora Goss

You ask where you will find her. Beside the singing fountains,
where orange trees are blossoming and perfuming the air;
where night is like an orchard, with orange blossoms shining,
and the spirit of the fountains unbinds its wild blue hair.

Ask courage of the clockwork bird and follow where it tells you,
the talking bird that maps the long brown road to heart’s desire.
Pass by the groaning forests, and boars that speak in parables,
and stop your ears as you approach the taunting realms of fire.

When you have reached the final citadel, you’ll find the trousers
that give a man a league at step, the zither that is wise
enough to know how you can open all the cut-glass doorways.
Release the cat that smiles and blinks its dreaming amber eyes.

Then, after chasm and abyss, and after crystal mountains
that dazzle and confuse the mind like vertical green seas,
you’ll come at last beneath the trees of fragrant orange-orchards
where the princess in the singing fountains bathes her soft white knees.

(The image is The Sensitive Plant by Charles Robinson.)

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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 image is Sleeping Beauty by Sir Edward Burne-Jones.)

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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.)

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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.)

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