The Poet’s Child
by A.C. Wise
Oranges, Age, and Regret
The poet’s child awoke to discover the loss of the word for a fruit so bright its skin is like the setting sun, its juice so bitter-sweet that it is all of summer and winter in one mouthful. The child rose and, seeing the day was already late, went downstairs. The poet sat within the glassed-enclosed porch, cat-curled into a chair before a table placed in the center of the room.
The room was an eye, and on three sides its windows gazed out over rolling grass—painfully green—and trees swaying under a sun the thick-gold of weak tea or strong honey. The land surrounded the house like a painting—too beautiful and unreal to be true. The poet’s child gestured beyond the glass.
“Those trees, I used to know the name of the fruit growing on them.”
The poet looked up, face holding an expression that was perhaps not as remorseful as it might have been. The child saw that the poet had been chewing the pen again. The bone colored quill had splintered under the constant gnashing of teeth. The poet’s lips had been stained black, ink soaked deep into cracks in the skin.
Slanting sunlight caught the poet’s hair and illuminated eyes, which were a green far less painful than the grass, but no less dangerous. The poet shrugged, a slight movement lifting wing-like shoulder bones.
“It’s a poem about the countryside, about this house, and the land,” the poet said, as though no more explanation or justification was needed for the theft of words. The speaking showed stained teeth behind stained lips, fissures of black scored into panes of ivory.
The poet held the child’s gaze for a moment longer then resumed chewing the pen. The glass room, which trapped sunlight and kept out the world, filled with the skritch of quill over paper; it filled with the sound made by the end of the feather that had once been buried in a goose’s flesh, breaking.
Watching the poet, the child came to know the loss of a score of other words, like the way for counting the number of years one has been alone. The child knew only of being neither too old, nor too young, for heartbreak.
“I used to bring you plums,” the child said, thoughtful, looking out over the wide lawn. It hurt, choosing words so carefully. It dug at all the places where the words weren’t, where holes in memory had stolen things that mattered, things the child used to love. “I used to bring them in a wide ceramic bowl, chilled so that they still carried the imprint of breath, like frost on their dark skins. Do you remember?”
The poet shrugged once more. The child tried to summon something—a feeling for not taking joy in what had been lost, but that word was gone too, devoured by the poet’s pen. The poet didn’t look up, but bent further to the poem, fractured quill scratching paper as thin as skin, stained lips shaping words without sound. The poet’s child turned, leaving the poet and poem alone.
Desire, Sex, Tears, and Rain
The poet’s child walked out beyond the windows, looking back at the house and the poet bent over the poem. The child climbed up the low hills rolling above the house, bucking like the sea. A breeze blew through the olive trees—a fruit with a name the child could still hold on the tongue, like the taste of olives themselves, salty and soaked in brine.
The poet’s child remembered that flavor, lingering like a ghost, but had forgotten another word in its place. It was the word for the thing that so often comes between people, but also brings them together, closer than skin on skin. The word, the poet’s child knew, brought a host of other things tumbling in its wake—similar, different, separate and not, chromosomes, just slightly off kilter from each other, creating rifts universe-wide, or things so achingly the same that everything came crumbling down between them when they touched.
Every word the child could remember to describe that lost thing was mundane, clinical and cold, expressing nothing at all. There was so much more, something the child could almost touch. A memory snagged in the trees, in the leaves flipped silver by the blowing wind. Someone else, maybe more than one person, had stood here once.
The child could almost remember eyes like the poet’s—just as green and just as dangerous. Where the child stood now, someone else had stood, close enough to press hand to hand. The poet’s child remembered sun-warmed skin, but none of the names spoken into the air between the trees. If the wind-silvered leaves were frosted in the ghost-skin of memory, they spoke nothing of it and kept their secrets.
The poet’s child had forgotten many things.
From that vantage point on the hill, looking away from the house, the poet’s child could just catch a glimpse of the sea. Between the trees, far more distant than the ones whispering indecipherable things overhead, water sparkled—mirrored drops of silver, cast hopelessly adrift on the blue.
Turning, the poet’s child descended to the house. It squatted among lengthening shadows. The hills made a bowl and the house nestled in it, like plums in concave ceramic, set next to a parent’s hand.
The poet still sat at the table, legs bent the same, pen to lips, staring. The poet did not look up as the child crossed the room, and the child peered over the poet’s shoulder.
The poem sitting on the table was written on air, a melting insubstantial thing. The paper was made of shed flesh, and snow destined to melt. The words were all strange; the child had lost them long ago.
“I used to know a word,” the child said, “for wanting a person, or a thing, above any other thing in the world. Only it was more than wanting. The word was a key, heavy on my tongue, tasting of brass and iron, marrow and blood. It unlocked a heart that wasn’t mine.”
The poet didn’t look up, but raised shoulders in a barricade of bone. The poet hunched closer to the poem with sheltering arms, as though the words dripping from the child’s mouth were a rough downpour that might damage the fragile thing the poet had created. Silence stretched, pressing against the glass walls to shatter them. When it was too much to bear, the poet finally looked up.
“It’s a poem about love,” the poet explained—insufficient, but offering nothing more. “It’s a poem about losing things, and sadness, and letting go.”
The poet’s eyes were infinite—the green of deep wells where moss grows and never sees the light. The poet had stolen the words, but lost the essence of their meaning—a linguistic vampire, un-warmed by the blood of others. There was no pity in the poet’s fathomless gaze.
Turning, the poet flicked one hand, dismissing the child with long, thin fingers scarcely more than bone. Those fingers were the same shade as the quill, stained with as much ink. Poet and pen formed one thing, inseparable, indivisible and absolute. The poet’s skin, the child realized, was very much like the paper; the language written there just as unknowable and strange.
The poet’s child drew back, but at the door, paused and turned. In the room, shadows lengthened—plum-skin and bruise purple, lying so thick the poet could scarcely be seen.
“There used be another…one, didn’t there?” The child stumbled over unfamiliar words, tongue ungainly in the face of so much loss. It was like trying to express a thing never seen, trying to see a whisper in the dark, or trying to feel a color at the bottom of the ocean. “You used to be…not alone.”
The poet looked up, those dangerous green eyes still visible in the dark. They were more than the color of moss; they were also the shade of sunlight on a forest pool. They were gold flecked over deep water, dampness and stones. They were the memory of things passed and never to be caught again.
The poet shrugged—a favorite gesture. It made the child think of flayed skin and exposed bone.
“I used to bring you fruit that tasted like winter,” the poet’s child murmured.
Stars pin-pricked the black as the child climbed the stairs—sky mirroring the water as seen through the distant trees. The poet’s child was tired, though a memory of waking with the dawn lingered, a memory of not laying down to sleep until long after the moon had crossed the apex of the sky.
“I’m tired all the time now, I sleep all night and all day,” the child said to no one. It was good to speak aloud, words were so precious and few. Yet each word caused pain, bruising lips as they fell into a house of weird silences.
Sitting on the bed, the poet’s child could see out the window to the gentle hills and the silvered olive trees, now star-touched. The place between the trees where no one stood, where absence was a palpable thing, shone with moonlight. Alone on the bed, the poet’s child almost felt the touch of a long-gone hand.
Once upon a time, there was a word that went with the word poet—other and together—fitting things into a whole. The poet’s child wondered what the poet had lost, what else had been given up in service of the poem. Was it anything like what the child had lost?
The child wondered about eyes the green of olives, and kisses with the same salt-brine taste as that fruit. Once upon a time, the child had known a dozen words for goodbye and a dozen reasons to say them. But the poet’s child had forgotten them now, along with the words for water falling from the sky, or falling from the eyes of someone who is gone.
The poet’s child trembled, full of frustration and the pent up need to express the inexpressible. What could be worth this? Would the poet’s scratching pen circumnavigate the world, bind it in ink and vellum skin? Would the poet wrap up all the words ever spoken to keep them safe, to banish memory and feeling?
Was it a kindness, the poet’s child wondered, or a cruelty, stealing words, one by one, and taking their meaning away? In the terrible silence of the house, the poet’s child felt the splintered pen, goose quill, ink stained, scratching at the walls, scratching over skin and bones.
The poet’s child wakes under the eye of night. It is cold in the house and utterly dark. The child cannot remember the last time of waking without the sun. The lawn around the house is not green anymore, but black, slaughtered by the moon and turned into a fathomless sea where they will drift forever—poet and child.
The child rises, feet chill on the stone, and creeps downstairs. Ghosts crowd the space between the walls. The poet’s child slips into the room once suffused with sunlight, now heavy with the moon.
Three glass walls show the poet in silver light, dark hair feathered against pale skin, one cheek pillowed on a too-long hand. The pen is still, gripped over the vellum skin of the page. The tip is utterly splintered now, and the poet’s lips are as pure black as the sky.
The child crouches, catching the poet’s breath as it passes sleeping lips. There are inky words imprinted on the poet’s tongue. The child can almost see them, inhale them like phantoms, allowing understanding of everything lost and gone.
More words disappeared in the night—more than sun-bright fruit, and need like a key slipped between skin and bone. The lost words are much more terrible now. They encompass caring for another person enough to protect them even after they have hurt you; they hold pain in the soul, and the word for growing from that pain into something that makes it close to right in the end.
The poet’s child rises and slips the poem from beneath the poet’s sleeping hand. The poem has almost outgrown the table, spilling onto the floor, and there is still blank space at the bottom, a place where more stolen words will go. The shattered pen catches on the frost-thin sheet, almost but not quite, tearing it. There are still a few words the poet’s child remembers—words like match and fire and burn.
The smoke is acrid in the closed room, but not enough to wake the sleeping poet who breathes out inky dreams that would turn the color of drifting ash if they could take solid form. The poet’s child turns away, gliding out the door like a ghost and out into the world.
Footprints mar the dew, moving away from a place of shadows cradled in a bowl of hills. There is a word the child can almost remember. It is a word spoken between people who have caused each other pain, but are bonded by something bigger than that pain, big enough to swallow that pain and keep surviving in its wake.
But the poem has devoured that word, stealing it from both poet and child. All that is left between them in its absence is this: going away and never looking back again.
A.C. Wise was born and raised in Montreal, and currently lives in the Philadelphia area. Her work has previously appeared in places like Realms of Fantasy, Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine and Jabberwocky 3. For more information, or just to drop by and say hi, visit www.acwise.net or acwise.livejournal.com.
Filed under: Jabberwocky 5