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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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 a sparrow’s wings,
the annoyed chuff of a robin.

I would like to be small enough
to 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.)

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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 image is Vilma Reading a Book by T.F. Simon.)

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