I always know when my neighbor
sits down to compose a few lines
by the arrival of a young woman
with a peachy complexion
a dusting of freckles across her cheeks
a wreath of freesia and satin ribbons.
You can’t help but notice
how she bursts from her peasant’s dress,
how the sultry breeze lifts
the flowing train of her hair
that catches the sunlight
like a gold spun scarf.
Dancing down the walkway
in hemp skirts and shoeless feet
with dimestore bells about her ankles,
she brings jars of raw honey and,
for reasons unclear to me then,
three ducklings in a willow basket.
My mother’s heavy drapes
exhale a long-held breath
from folds of their black lungs.
Choking on the foul vapors of exhumation
powdery clouds of mildew and dust
I spy his baldpate from my
upstairs window, watching
as he scurries into the house,
locking all the doors as he so
delights in her sneaking in.
Through the branches
of an ancient and dour cypress –
monarch of my shade dark yard –
I strain to see this Thalia
fertile, bounding, laughing,
as she climbs through
the window of his kitchen
leaving a shower of crab apple petals
hanging in the heavy air
before she vanishes inside.
And so I know his wife
is away on the dull errands
that a marriage to a man
of his many talents demands.
His muse sets his books in order
fills the jars with ice and lemon water
licking the honeyed spoon.
She reserves two box seats
to see the Chinese acrobats
sews herself a silk dress
of fire engine red, hand embroidered
with mother of pearl buttons.
She reads to fill his head with
age-old teachings of the sages,
of the bards and sorcerers
of the cave dwelling magi
of the hermits and ecstatics
of young lovers and wise women.
She scrubs and polishes;
she feeds him buttered bread.
In her pond water eyes she
earns the favor of gods both
wrathful and lascivious.
By skill or by witchcraft,
the lucid dreams of men –
of the poets and the Troubadours
of the priests and rabbis
of everyday park bench creeps –
dreams in which they trace
the soft, pink flesh of her breasts
the gentle curve of her waist
with their groping eyes,
their bony fingers
are awakened in him.
Sure enough, my neighbor is
rewarded with much success
* * *
After five weeks of rain
when the black mold seeps
across the kitchen ceiling
when years of tiny, pattering feet
of warm and dimpled hands
and strawberry kisses have past,
when the pipes are leaking
and the wires have gone bad
and the foundation rots
in the dark, dank earth –
it is only then I hear the familiar
knock of timid knuckles on my door
the knock of desperation.
My old friend Achlys, the muse of gloom,
arrives shrouded in the mist of wintry fields
smelling of dead leaves and moth balls.
Pale, bone thin, and weeping
with chattering teeth, swollen knees
crescents of black dirt below her long nails
her cheeks scratched and bloodied
and her shoulders covered with thick
pollen from the crab apples,
she scrapes the mud from her boots
upon the threadbare rug,
shakes the rain from her rag mop of hair,
gray as the fog and full of burrs,
upon the only pages
I’ve managed to complete.
The ink runs black
in little rivulets over the paper,
the desk, and onto the floor.
She tells me, in a solemn voice
that there is no point in writing
anything else and she proceeds
to list the host of coming plagues
that promise to eliminate life
as we know it, and in just a few
generations too, and how the West
is to blame for everything
with their appetites for gadgets
for speed and strange salads.
But then the little stream of inky water
pools upon the floor, making
tiny, mirrored lakes.
When the sun breaks through
the clouds – orange, pink and white
reflected in shimmering puddles –
molten drops of gold upon the wood
of the kitchen floor –
an oil sheen, then a nebula
rotating in the cosmic stew.
We sit together and watch the changes.
We go way back, me and Achlys.
In a while, she wonders out loud
what new metaphor
could ever arise from spilled ink
seeping through the floorboards –
now only a stain upon the mind.
With a clatter and racket
and a scream of delight
Thalia pushes down the fence;
spry and sure-footed as a cow,
she crashes through my yard,
his livid wife snipping at her hair
with the pruning shears
until Thalia, not looking,
collides with the great trunk
of the old cypress in my backyard
spilling words in every language
she’d hidden in the shredded paper
bedding for the ducklings
in her basket of gifts.