by CSE Cooney

for Patty Templeton

In the early days
Sacrifice is required

When the winter months are lean
Mothers leave their babies on the hills
Or in the open window sills
Mostly girl-children, it’s true
But in the drowns of night
When the distant reaches are all sunk in white
A young boy might do, too

Years quicken, mud blossoms
Winter habits wither
The elders gather in the village hall

“Are we apes?” asked one
“To give our babies to the grave
Dangling their bones from the willows
As bait
To save ourselves?”

Someone else – a thin man – said:
“We require these deaths
Lest the Tall Ones come again
As wolves and ravens walking in the skins of men
Each in his saffron rags
With a light upon his shoulder
And a rose burning in his hand.”

Another said:
(She was – or had been – a mother)
“They come because we feed them
Something sweet and rare.”

They all decided there
That what they needed most
Was a place –
Some safe distance from their homes –
Where they might house their dead
And keep the bones

The graveyard was designed
By the finest minds of that time
Two hundred acres wide
With gates of iron
It would be blessed, of course
By Pastor Fell, and guarded
From the fiends of Hell
By some brute beast
Mute – but loyal
Clever and without a soul

This would be the final sacrifice:
First blood spilled
First grave dug
Of that ground

They chose for the task a dog
Who belonged to Soosa Rhymes

Soosa Rhymes was four years old
So was Brack, her big black dog
They had shared the cradle
And what little milk the cow could spare
Watered down
Soosa ventured nowhere without Brack
And everyone knew
Brack would die for his Soo

The perfect guardian

So, Goody Rhymes one night
Drugged the stew
And carted Brack by wheelbarrow
To the consecrated site
Which Pastor Fell had roped off
With pegs and miles of twine
Having blessed the soil already
With salt and holy wine

In the middle of the field
There was a large fl at stone
Goody Rhymes went over
Where the men were standing
To dump the contents of her wheelbarrow
Three men held Brack down
While she stretched his neck to the sky

Pastor Fell stood gray
In the cloud-light
His mustache lay like worms against his mouth
He did not believe
Reluctance was a Virtue
He thought it best to get this uncouth business done
As soon as possible

And so
It was his hand – unchecked –
That dealt the death of Soosa Rhymes

It was an accident
(At least, no witness left alive
Confessed it otherwise);
There was a little girl who
Waking up betimes
Had followed mother and beloved Brack
So close behind
Had seen the field, the stone, the gray man in the moon
Had watched the Pastor lick his lips
And heft the hatchet high

Perhaps Pastor Fell had not seen her
It was dark, after all
And sudden
When it was done – everyone was silent
Even Goody Rhymes just thinned her lips
Keeping quiet

Brack began to stir from sleep
With groans and tremblings of his paws
Knowing in his dreams the fl aws
That warped the night
So Pastor Fell let fall his hatchet
Once again
With all his might

Soosa and her big black dog
Lie tangled in a single grave
Unmarked and faithfully ignored
Their names were forgotten
By the next burial
(Pastor Fell presiding)

But down there in the dark
She turns and whispers, “Brack.”
And down there in the dark
He whispers, “Soosa,” back

What follows are desolate centuries
The woods are stripped
The oil bled from wells
The graveyard filled
The village rose and fell
Until nothing was left
But a place to keep the bones

Brack and Soosa Rhymes
Find this arrangement fine

Soosa spends her days making gardens
Out of skulls and bony thighs
Planting tansy and teasel
In the sockets of their eyes
Ginger in their grins
Lungwort in their ribs
And honeysuckle creeping up a trestle of their limbs

Brack, meanwhile
Is learning to transform his shape
Black wolf, black rooster
Black weasel and black crow
Black goat, black horse, black lamb
He hopes one day
To ape the shadow of a man
And claim Soosa for his bride

In this way, they were occupied
Not quite content –
Nor yet quite dead – but biding time
Until that final winter
When the Tall Ones came again

At last
One chill gloaming
Th in from a thousand-year fast
In ragged saffron parade
They came
From thorny hills and barren land
White lights on their shoulders
Burning roses in their hands

They sent an emissary
Their diplomat and clown
A Tall One of renown
Known to everyone who asks
As the Flabberghast

He was slim as salmon
With a graceful greasepaint face
Lips like berries, teeth like diamond rings
A peacock for his top hat, a coat of sequins
And a belt of lizard-skin
Soosa thought he smelled of strange perfumes
But Brack did not like him

Soosa stood inside the cemetery gate
Hands on hips
She had grown since her death
She was almost as tall as a Tall One now
And no matter how he smiled and bowed
The Flabberghast failed to move her

“What do you want, old thing?” she asked
“One more fiend in fancy dress
Looking for a handout
Your way of strutting like you own the place
Doesn’t please my dog
He thinks you’re dangerous.”

“Just a lick,” begged the Tall One
“A tailbone – a toe
You can grow your herbs anywhere
The dead will never know
Let us in
Let us eat
Let your guard down at last
And we will make you one of us,”
Promised the Flabberghast

Soosa gazed across her garden
Her grandfathers, their sons
The daughters of her cousins
And all their little ones
All dead, all gone
All thyme and tarragon
And she a slave to their graves
Though they had betrayed her
And her only love

The black mink
Draped about her shoulders
Gently licked her ear

“Why not?” asked Brack
“Why not indeed?” said Soosa Rhymes

“So we are agreed!”
Cried the Flabberghast
“The past is past.”

The Tall Ones palavered at the gate
Slavering, as Soosa took
A great gray key
(Made of Pastor Fell’s left knee)
And fit it to the lock
She undid what needed undoing
Unglued what needed ungluing

And Brack, without ado
Became the big black crocodile
Who ushered them through

The Flabberghast was last
To pass the gates
He and Crocodile Brack stood back
To face each other
Brack lashed his armored tail
While the Tall One smiled

“Dear Guardian,” he said
“I want nothing but the marrow
You have hoarded –
Beg your pardon – warded
All these years
These bones you have here underground?
Enough to go around for centuries!
Now, Brack, stand up
Walk on two legs like a man
Shake my hand
Let us be companions
In the twilight of the world.”

Brack reached within
To rearrange the darkness
And midnight changed
And grew a human skin

That night among the tombs
The Tall Ones
(Dreadful and well fed)
Danced around a wedded pair
Who each wore bridal robes of saffron
White lights upon their shoulders
Bone and bramble in their hair

And when Soosa bent
To kiss Brack’s open palm
A burning rose bloomed there

“Wild Over Tombs Does Grow,” originally published in Cemetery Guardians in 2006, can now also be found in CSE Cooney’s poetry collection HOW TO FLIRT IN FAERIELAND AND OTHER WILD RHYMES, published by Papaveria Press.

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