Archive for September 24th, 2007

When crossing the moors,
never mind the witch;
be wary of the king’s men.

The gingerbread on her house
is only architectural excess
not culinary, the consequences
of gnawing no more than splinters.
Her worst eccentricities are earnest ramblings
on herbs to her old cat
and a lack of belief in bathing.
At times, she cheats at cards.

If you go by road
you fall in with the tollkeeper first.
He swaggers with his helm and two-handed sword,
says he is a gentleman, and lowers himself
if he hurries to help you.
All day he props over
hot pastries and ale
and his indigestion
(and hence his temper)
is not of the best.
He taxes you once for the king, he says,
and twice for himself;
the third time is for practice.

He keeps six hounds
hungry and well-lashed
and loosed at night
to take toll of another kind.
Bluff past him with your blade or bow,
and he semaphores, they say,
to bandits in the swamp.
The bandits, like the dogs,
strike only faces and hands
and after the dead’s clothes
are sold to second-hand merchants.

In his village
(where they do not travel
and are fond of fashion)
he passes for an honest man.

If you go overland, the foresters
lounge in the bracken.
Dour in dun hoods, they
preserve the forest and wild pigs for the king’s pleasure
(which he takes elsewhere)
and for their own
forbid crofters any firewood except
branches fallen from the bracken.

They arrive at the crofters’
doors near dinner
with dogs they say can sniff out
purloined hams and pork chops.
Their hands fall like a pedophile’s
on the shoulders of crofter children.
“The law is your friend,” they say,
“Tell us where your mother
cuts firewood.”

In the lonely places on the moor
they saunter in from the shadows
and mistrust travellers at random.
Sometimes, they plant
sausages or pig’s feet
in the packs of those
grown querulous at their questions.
Such wayfarers, they say,
become careless in their custody,
falling face first in the fire.

But in nearby villages, the burghers
(honest men, all of them)
say you must not believe
the bitter ones with broken fingers.
They declare the foresters upstanding men,
their only fault (and that occasional)
over-dedication to duty.

The coachman of the royal mail
empties your purse for passage, then
flings you off with the luggage
in his flight from trouble or fancy.

The army whose members
maneuver on the moor says
you can always lose your virginity somewhere.

Better the wild dogs and night-walkers,
the barrow guest and the quaint
cannibalisms of the turf cutters or
the one who walks behind.
Better take a stone from
the strange-arched ruins or
whistle at
the third milestone at midsummer.
Play riddles with
the watchers in the reeds or
thank the hanging man.
Let your voice reply
to the women who sing at twilight
before you trust
in your city polish and manners
the customs of the king’s men.

When crossing the moors,
never mind the witch;
be wary of the king’s men.

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