ALTERNATIVES

ALTERNATIVES

1.

I ate the fish,

though it offered me anything I wanted.

I wanted something to eat,

so I snapped its neck and brought it home.

My wife made soup with a few wild greens.

If she’d known, she would have fussed.

She wants more.

I want less.

Enough to eat,

a roof over my head.

My little boat,

and the water, and the air.

 

2.

I was Vasilisa the fair, destined

to marry the tzar.

I carried Mother’s blessing

like a little doll in my pocket.

I did all the witch required.

I was on the edge of safety,

but I did not heed the doll’s trembling

and I asked about the hands.

Now the doll lies at the bottom of a well

and those disembodied hands are mine,

and the white bones in the fence,

the mortar and pestle,

the chest of wonders.

The skull above the door.

 

3.

When they left for the ball

and the house was quiet,

I went into the garden

and stood beneath the tree

on Mother’s grave.

Stars, a thin moon—

the sky all silver and blue.

Through the silence,

my Mother spoke,

gentle, like a dove.

She told me what to take,

where to go.

Now I’m old,

in my cottage with my cat,

content as any queen.

Why would I want

to be queen, when I have

a gown of moonlight,

a crown of stars?

 

4.

Here, my dear,

is the little hood I wore

when I was a girl.

And here is the little basket

I carried when I went

to see my granny.

I’ve put some cookies

in the basket.

Don’t eat them all

on your way home.

 

5.

It was difficult at first,

that other woman’s daughter,

so lovely and so spoiled.

She resented me, though I told her

I would never try

to take her mother’s place.

(I’d had a stepmother, too,

and I knew how it was.)

When she ran away,

her father and I searched everywhere.

We found her in the forest

with those little men—

you can imagine what he thought

though she insisted all was well.

She would not come home,

though her father pleaded,

offered her dresses, jewels, a prince,

anything she desired.

I told him to let her be.

She was old enough

to make her own way,

strong enough to survive.

When we left her there,

her father said it was like

leaving her in a coffin.

I told him to wait,

and I was right.

She came home

not long afterwards.

It was easier then,

as if we’d become allies,

which, I suppose, we were.

 

6.

On my sixteenth birthday

I climbed the stairs into the west tower.

There was an old woman there,

turning a wheel.

A thin thread formed under her hand,

like magic. She invited me to try,

but I don’t believe in magic,

so I thanked her,

and went back down to the party.

 

7.

Every day, I am thankful

for this generous goose.

Without her, all of us here

would still be poor.

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THINGS SHE DID

THINGS SHE DID

Once I was a fisherman

until I caught the talking fish

and ate it—against its objections—

and now I cannot speak

of anything but blue.

 

Once I was a bookbinder

until I bound a volume

of verses about flowers.

Now I am trapped by fragrances

and the lullabies of bees.

 

I was a grave-digger

alone among the stones

with the cool earth around me

until all I could do was

sing to the shovel, and the clay.

 

Once I was a weaver

but one day my fingers tangled

in the web and pulled me in.

Now I go on and on,

a tapestry of knot and scrap.

ONCE UPON A TIME, THE STORIES TOLD

ONCE UPON A TIME, THE STORIES TOLD

 

about the path in the forest

and what you’d find if you strayed.

How manners matter,

respect for elders, kindness

to strangers, even giving them

your last crumb. When it comes

to the point, respect, too, for animals,

because you never know.

About how careful you must be

when you make promises and

what happens if you don’t keep them.

How dangerous it is to offend old women.

(Never, ever, offend old women.)

They told what happened

if you lied, stole from the poor.

They told what always happened

to people who wanted to be like god.

THE GREEDY FISHERMAN

THE GREEDY FISHERMAN

~after the Brothers Grimm

Once upon a time, there was a fisherman who lived in a vinegar jug by the seaside. Every day he went out fishing. Some days he caught enough fish to sell, some days he caught only enough to eat, some days he caught nothing.

But one beautiful morning, when the sea was calm and the sun was shining brightly, he caught a little golden fish, the likes of which he had never seen. “Ah,” he thought to himself, “I can sell this fish for a pretty penny.”

But as he pulled the hook from the fish’s mouth, the fish spoke. “Fisherman! If you let me go, I will grant you a wish. Anything you desire.”

Of course the fisherman had never heard a fish speak. “Why should I let you go?” he said.  “I can sell you and get rich! A golden fish that talks!”

“But you can wish for all the riches you like,” said the fish, “if you let me go.”

“Well, all right,” said the fisherman, who still did not quite trust the fish. “I would like a nice cottage instead of a vinegar jug.”

“Go home then,” said the fish. “It is as you wished.”

So the fisherman rowed his little boat home, and there, just as the fish had said, was a little cottage where the vinegar jug had been. There were two rooms, the kitchen with a good stove and a neat table, all complete, and a bedroom with a neat cot covered with a featherbed. Outside was a bit of garden, with cabbages and onions planted in rows. The fisherman was well pleased, and for many days he lived contented in his cottage.

But one day he began to think, “Why did I not ask for a mansion? Surely the fish could have granted me that. I’ll go back and see.”

He rowed his little boat back out into sea. There were clouds over the sun, and ripples in the water, but the fisherman was used to bad weather. He rowed out to where he had first caught the fish, and he called, “Fish! Fish! I have another wish!”

The fish immediately poked its head from the water, and the fisherman thought it looked a bit larger than it had at first.  “Yes? What is it?” asked the fish.

“I would like a mansion. Can you do that for me?”

“Yes,” said the fish, “I can. Go back home and you will have a mansion.”

The fisherman rowed home, and there where the cottage had been was a big stone mansion with beautiful gardens and a barn and a stable full of horses and carriages. The mansion had a hundred rooms and a great hall and a gallery and servants to look after it all. The fisherman was very pleased. He liked the beautiful things in the mansion, and he liked telling the servants what to do. And he stopped going down to the sea to fish.

And one day, after he had ordered his servants to prepare a bath and a picnic lunch for him, and had watched them busy themselves with his orders, he thought, “I could be king. If I were king, I would have more servants, and the lords and ladies all around would have to obey me, too. I will order my yacht to take me back to the fish, and I will tell it that I want to be king.”

So he ordered his yachtsman to make ready, and down to the sea he went. The sky was covered in cloud then, and there were whitecaps on the water, but the fisherman was not worried at all. He knew about all kinds of weather. “Fish! Fish!” he called. “I have another wish!”

The fish appeared then, poking her head out of the water. Yes, she was definitely larger than before, thought the fisherman, but the fisherman did not worry. As he grew more powerful, he thought, of course the fish would grow, too.  “What do you want? the fish asked.

“I want to be king,” said the fish.

“Of course you do,” said the fish. “Go back now. You are king.”

The fisherman had the yacht bring him back to the shore, and sure enough, the mansion was gone and in its place was a castle. It had a moat, and towers and flags flying in the brisk wind. The fisherman was greeted at the shore by a herald blowing a trumpet, and by a golden coach pulled by eight white horses, and the people lining the road waved and cheered as he passed on his way.

The castle was as magnificent as he could have imagined, and he was attended by lords and ladies who were happy to do his bidding. He had fine food to eat and fine clothes to wear, and wanted for nothing. But one day. . . “If I were emperor,” thought the fisherman, I would have kings and queens to attend me instead of mere lords and ladies. I will go back to the fish and tell it that I want to be emperor.

So he ordered his royal fleet to escort him to the spot where he had first met the fish. The wind was high and the rain had started to fall when they reached the spot, so the fisherman had his herald blow a trumpet to summon the fish.

She reared out of the water before him, half the size of his royal ship. “What is it now?” she asked.

“I want to be emperor,” said the fisherman. “Make me emperor.”

“Go,” said the fish. “You are emperor.”

This time when the fisherman disembarked, he was met by six golden coaches, each with a king or queen inside. His own coach was three times larger than their coaches, and was pulled by twenty black horses. As the kings and queens escorted him back to the palace that had taken the place of his castle, the people again lined the road and waved and cheered. It was raining and the wind was howling, and it pleased the fisherman that the people were standing in the rain to greet him.

And so his life went on. Kings and queens waited on him, and did his bidding. Anything he wished to have, he had, anything he wished to do, he did, and no one could stop him, or even stand in his way. But one morning as he looked out the window of his private chamber, he saw the sun shining over his lands, and he said, “I would like to make the sun come up when I want it to. I want to make it set at my pleasure. I want to be god.” The kings and queens attending him were horrified, but they said nothing. The fisherman ordered his coach and attendants to take him to the sea, and his imperial fleet went with his imperial flagship out into the water. The clouds were towering, and the rain falling in great sheets, and the wind was blowing a gale. Two of the ships in his fleet were capsized and the sailors drowned, but the fisherman did not mind. He himself stood at the bow of the ship and called the fish. “I command you!” he shouted. “Come forth!”

The fish emerged from the water, her great golden form looming above the ship. Everyone but the fisherman fell to their knees. “What do you want?” said the fish.

“I want to be god!” said the fisherman.

“Go then,” said the fish. “Go.” And the fish slid back into the water. The sea was suddenly dreadfully calm, and the ships vanished, and the fisherman found himself on the shore where there was no palace, or castle, or mansion or cottage. There was nothing but a vinegar jug, and there the fisherman lived alone for the rest of his days.

FAIRY TALE

~an old one

FAIRY TALE

Walking in the woods

always birds

often deer

often coyote

once turning a corner

face to face with a fox

equally surprised

once moose tracks

 

What am I looking for?

monkeys swinging in a branch of pine

seals basking on the old beaver dam

flamingos wading through cattails

or like in a story I read once upon a time

a little door low down in a tree

the golden key in my pocket

 

 

1998

 

April prompt #24

April prompt #24

A lullabyDavid’s #5

GRIMM”S LULLABY

 

Sleep, little one, sleep.

Nana will keep

the wolf from the door,

and the sisters with one eye

and three. The ash girl

is shaking the tree

grown up from her mother’s

bones. So sleep.

No one will slice off

your heel or your toes.

The witch in the forest

is far, far away

and the path to her house

is edged with white stones.

Her cage is empty,

her oven is cool,

and the hunter,

the spinner,

the prince and the fool

guard the door of your room.

So sleep.

APPEARANCES

APPEARANCES

Appearances always mattered to her,

and no wonder, for hers was stunning:

that auburn hair, round arms, her hazel eyes.

When she was young,

they called her “Gams”

and she kept those legs until she died.

 

She never understood

ragged jeans and shaggy hair,

flowers painted on the ceiling.

I never understood

matching handbags and shoes.

What she saw, I could not see.

 

She could turn collars and make

perfect bound buttonholes.

I pay someone to fix my broken zippers.

She filed receipts in labeled folders.

I throw away unopened mail.

In fact, there’s much I do not keep.

 

But there are things I do—

hymns she taught me to hold the thunder at bay,

names of wildflowers, names of sparrows.

Scent of bread and baked potatoes.

Grimm fairy tales, unexpurgated,

and words like the one I just used.