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Well, it's finally here and...it sure does exist. For most of the poetry stuff I usually put how I feel about it here, but for this I'm really not sure. On one hand it was nice to utilize some different creative muscles, but on the other this is a type of writing that is largely foreign to me. The result of a semester of revision and peer-review. Enjoy.
Candles seldom intimidate. For the most part people tend to have, if not an abject fear, a healthy respect for fire. Candles however are viewed as something diminutive and therefore not scary, they represent mankind’s mastery over the elements; we can contain fire on a wax pillar and use it as a tool.
Despite all this though, there was a certain young woman, holed up in an inn that was falling apart and filled with the dregs of society, that often spent her nights tossing and turning in fear of candles. Or more specifically a single candle. She could remember it in extreme detail, the monolithic image of it cut through the haze that obscured most childhood memories. Her father said it had been in the family for generations, the hexagonal candlestick seemed to weigh as a mountain. It was covered in golden paint, for surely her family couldn’t afford a solid gold candlestick, and there seemed to be an ever-present pearl of flame dancing atop it. Like an upside-down tear drop that little flame captivated her, so much that she often thought about the amazing things that would surely happen if she just reached out and touched it.
Fralia awoke with a shiver. A chill wind blew in from the sea and her single threadbare blanket was a poor ward against the cold. She rolled off the cot, just barely long enough for her frame, and her feet brushed the rough floor planks. As she stood she took in her space, just the right size that if she stretched her arms out she could touch each wall. The room was sparse, despite being told she could keep her own possessions in there; she didn’t have much beyond the clothes kept carefully folded under the cot. The only extravagance of the space was the window, thrown wide open, that granted a view of the all too distant sea. She stared out the window for the briefest of moments, taking in the mingling scents of chilled salt spray and the last sputtering wisps of acrid smoke from the oversized hearth downstairs. She eased the wide wooden shutters of the window closed, no real glass in a place like this. With the window shut she dressed hastily, lingering only on the near shapeless boots that came last. The bronze buckle that cinched the boots had been bent, and grew more bent, for going on a year. Fralia did the best she could trying to bend it back into place herself, but she would need to find someone that could actually repair the boots before long and money with which to pay them. Fralia let out a long and lingering sigh, spending money to get her boots fixed was not part of the plan.
She ran a mental calculation on her meager monetary assets, she got on average about one copper coin a week. She didn’t have to pay for her closet of a room and her twice daily meals, usually whatever was left over after the paying customers had eaten their fill, so long as she worked. She reckoned that repairing the buckle, a task that would require relatively precise work as the buckle was small, would take at least one silver coin; ten weeks of wages. This not counting time spent walking the almost sixteen miles to the nearest hamlet, time which she wouldn’t be working and therefore not being paid. Everything had a price and it seemed the price of a pair of boots was going to be a lingering dread for Fralia today.
“The Rowdy Mare Inn and Hostelry” exemplified everything a ramshackle building could aspire to be. The roof leaked, wind tore through the window shutters, and the oversized hearth vomited greasy smoke as long as it was burning. It did not cater to those with money to spend on better lodging and it was never meant to. From what Fralia had been told by the proprietress of the establishment, the stout old Mrs. Gert, the inn was originally built as a place for sailors to spend their measly earnings without having to trek all the way to the nearby village. As time grew it become a haven for, shall we say, less than reputable sailors; the sort that tend to liberate other ships of their cargo. Fralia didn’t know if this reputation is what made the place so downtrodden or if the downtrodden nature brought the lowest of society’s lows, and she quite honestly never cared. The place was a rickety box that was currently home to at least three criminals that Fralia knew of, but it was the center of her universe right now. Very few places would take in a young woman who wandered up with nothing to her name beyond a few raggedy dresses, but “The Rowdy Mare” wasn’t the sort to turn down anyone offering to work for a pittance. Fralia was just glad that, so far, no fights had broken out over breakfast.
Fralia bustled from table to table gathering grease-stained plates and empty mugs. The majority of the bleary-eyed men that occupied the tables ignored her, as they did every morning, but Fralia was distinctly aware of the few eyes that lingered on her for longer than was probably polite. She remembered when she was a girl and her mother told her a story about sailors that stayed out at sea so long that they married the first women they found, as a child she laughed about the comic scenes her mother described; but now she worried that the sailors, hard men that had been at sea for at least three months from what she’d heard, might have something in mind a touch less civil than marriage. She ignored their leers, but she squirreled away the notion deep in her mind that she would probably have to do something about them before the day was done.
The morning passed in a flurry of spilled beer and ever more unnerving glances. As the chill of early morning was burned away by the sun rising over the sea the hard-faced men that made port in “The Rowdy Mare” trickled out, some in pairs or small clumps but most alone. Each man had steeled himself for six long weeks at sea with cheap beer and dubious food better than they were liable to get aboard ships, at the very least this food was passably warm. Fralia made busy setting chairs right, sweeping out the grime tracked in by muddied boots, and gathering any bits of scrap food to throw to the old sow pig out back. The rear door of “The Rowdy Mare” whined and teetered on leather hinges that were, at least as far as Fralia thought, older then she was. She placed herself gingerly upon the old stump to the left of the door, used as a base for splitting logs Fralia assumed, and began to aimlessly toss chunks of hard bread and burnt sausage ends over the sagging fence of the pigpen. The sow pig waddled out of its tomb of mud and its own filth and began loudly snuffling up the offerings, as jubilant and dutiful in its consumption as any priest consuming a holiday meal.
As the pig gorged itself Fralia watched it with an ever more curious eye. When she first arrived at “The Rowdy Mare” her feelings towards the pig had been mixed, at first, she felt sorry for the beast trapped in its meager enclosure of packed mud and excrement. Mrs. Gert warned her not to step into the pen to feed the pig.
“Only e’er toss it it’s meals from a goodly distance away,” she mumbled out, followed by a too-toothy grin.
In an act of smug petulance veiled as kindness Fralia did exactly the opposite. She clambered over the waist high fence and held out her waiting hand, corn cob held out placatingly. The pig moved in the unnerving way that can only be attributed to large animals moving at speeds that should be impossible given their bulk. It evaded the sacrificial corn cob entirely and closed its mouth right around Fralia’s ankle. Shortly after Fralia let out a yelp, she could swear she heard Mrs. Gert cackling from the common room.
From that day on Fralia only ever did as she did today, toss the sour beast its offerings from afar lest it take you for its next meal. People often worried about the scary animals you hear in stories. Wolves eat children in the forest, a giant bird swooped down and took the neighbors goat clear into the sky, some giant fish sank a schooner. Never in her life had Fralia ever heard a cautionary story about the girl that got bit by a malevolent swine.
Fralia thought about this pig a lot when she had the time to let her mind drift in whichever way it would. She sometimes thought the pig was like she was, trapped here in a space that seemed too small. Other times she thought this violent pig was the sole malignancy from which everything wrong with the world was spawned; won’t some hero come slay this pig instead of questing after a dragon?
Fralia welcomed the pig thoughts though, even the ones in which the pig was the whirlpool of evil from which the things of nightmares were spread. These thoughts were fantasies and she knew that, they were preferable to the thoughts she had of real occurrences. Thoughts of heat and light and sobbing. Thoughts that caused her to bolt upright in the night in animalistic dread as faces made of roiling ink-black smoke shot through her mind like an arrow through a rabbit.
After her daily pig meditations Fralia was back on her feet and back to work. She swept and polished. She boiled and stirred. She listened as Mrs. Gert told the story, seemingly her only story, about how when she was a girl she worked from sunrise to sunset in an inn not even half this nice. Delivered with the croaking whine of old age and meant to make Fralia feel a sense of deep gratitude for what meager things she had. The story never worked as intended.
Very few came into “The Rowdy Mare” over the course of the day, the only patron Fralia even saw between her other chores was the miller’s son who stopped in to sample the cheap beer. She kept twitching her eyes towards him as she worked on scrubbing the caked-on char out of the hearth. He’d approached her with a clear interest once, commenting that her hair was the same shade of gold as the grain his father ground into the good flour. After she’d made it clear she wasn’t interested he ignored her completely. She kept waiting for him to push on her again or to lash out, but he simply treated her as though her very existence were a nonfactor in his reality. She wasn’t sure what to make of the fact that this complete denial of existence made her feel worse than rage or bitterness. She made efforts not to dwell on it, but whenever he would come in she would think on it again if only for the briefest of moments.
As the sun sank below the sea Fralia made her way up the stairs to her room. Taking care not to place her dirty boots in the center of the freshly swept risers. She entered her room and let out all at once an explosive exhalation. The kind of exhalation that only springs forth when you have worked a full day and sleep is finally in sight. But instead of sinking onto the hard mattress and welcoming the warm embrace of rest, Fralia stared at the bed.
She felt her breath quicken as a sound like a horse running at full gallop pounded through her whole being with every pump of her heart. It was always the worst when she first set forth with the intent to sleep. She slowly and deliberately removed her boots, he bare feet whispering across the pine floor. As she pulled the shapeless tunic up over her head the familiar metallic tang flooded through her mouth, as though she’d bitten her cheek and blood was welling over her tongue. She gently placed herself onto the cot, trembling to the very core of her being. She fought to keep her eyes open for as long as possible as she stared at the slanting ceiling above her. Barely illuminated by the cool blue of moonlight it calmed her if only slightly.
Fralia didn’t know when she finally lost the battle with her own weariness and sleep overtook her. As she slept, tossing fitfully on the small cot, she dreamt of mean leering at her in a smoky room. It started out as the thin wispy smoke the remains when a candle is snuffed, gray as the sky on a rainy morning and seemingly too ephemeral to exist in a world so concrete. But as the smoke drifted around the leering and calling men it became like the acrid and oily smoke of burning fat or kerosene. As this oily smoke pooled and roiled over each and every faceless man, drowning out their cries and blotting out their lust-filled eyes it became shot through with angry red flashes like some sort of hellish thundercloud. It roiled and burned through Fralia’s dreams for an eternity this smoke, touching upon every corner of her mind. As the smoke churned it began to assume more and more definition, predator’s eyes began to form under a heavy brow. A slab of a nose crowned a mouth curled into a rictus sneer, the mouth began to writhe and twist like a poor imitation of speech and just before a sound could echo forth from it Fralia shot upright in her cot.
Her chest heaved and she was covered in a thin layer of sweat that rested on her skin like snow. Her head swung back and forth as she clenched her teeth to the point of pain. It took her some time before the feral dread left her and she remembered where she was and as it dawned on her that she had been dreaming once more she pulled her knees up to her chest and sat in the center of the cot. She cried the first several times this had happened, horrid dreams of smoke, fire, death, and faces that shouldn’t be. But she was out of tears now, crying never made the dreams stop; all crying did was make her feel even more like a too-young girl lost in a reality that shouldn’t be hers.
Fralia managed to claw out a few hours of not particularly restful sleep before she blearily stumbled into another foggy and chill morning. With the sailors having vacated the premises “The Rowdy Mare” was once again largely empty, even in what should be among the busier hours in most inns. A handful of older farmhands sat clustered around a table nursing watered beer and mumbling under their breaths with the type of fervent grumbling only capable in the crotchetiest of old men. Fralia paid them little mind and they her and the morning progressed with a stillness that reminded Fralia of the morning after a torrential downpour, the type of morning in which one wasn’t quite sure if the sky had spit its last or it was merely taking a short break.
Shortly before midday the ramshackle door of “The Rowdy Mare” burst open and a cadre of men that made the previous day’s sailors look downright presentable sauntered their way into the common room. Fralia worked to make herself scarce as this new gaggle of crag-faced sailing men made themselves comfortable. As she slipped through the common room towards the kitchen she heard the one sound she’d been dreading for the whole of her short career at “The Rowdy Mare.” A single sharp whistle pierced through the close air of the common room as a hoarse and crackling voice whipped through the air like a blade.
“Come ‘ere girly, I wan’ ‘cha to take my order down real slow like,” rasped out the blade-like voice.
Fralia turned stiffly around to see the man who had spoken. The sun and salt leathered skin that covered his face when paired with the bald head made it impossible to tell the age of the calling figure, but the way his too-large black eyes raked over Fralia made it clear just what type of man he was, regardless of age.
“All we’ve got right now is beer and some weak cider from the early harvests,” Fralia managed to squeak out, using every iota of willpower to keep the quavering that was coursing through her stomach out of her voice.
“And wha’ if I want somethin’ a touch warmer once I settle down for the night,” he grated, licking his lips as his eyes continued to rake over Fralia. The handful of other craggy sailors merely watched the interplay. One coughed lightly into his hand, but the rest seemed too enthralled by the exchange to make even the slightest of sounds.
Fralia thought about telling the man that he was more than welcome to inquire with the sow pig out back, but she never quite had the nerve to mouth off. Especially to clearly dark men that would just as soon take a knife to her if she dared. She managed to retreat into the kitchen, feeling his eyes bore into her back all the while. As the door of the kitchen closed behind her she heard the muted sounds of laughter and low conversation as they fluttered back into the common room.
Mrs. Gert continued to mechanically dice potatoes into smaller and smaller hunks as Fralia simply leaned against the wall next to the kitchen door, trying to gain control of her breathing. Mrs. Gert set the big chopping knife off to the side of the small mound of chopped potatoes and spoke lowly.
“It was bound to happen sooner or later. Between the golden hair and the body you try to hide under that ratty old tunic you’re exactly what those sailors crave. Word of advice deary, types like that don’t stop until they get what they want or they get a knife in the gut for tryin’” after offering her sage wisdom Mrs. Gert nodded curtly, more to herself than Fralia, and began to cut her potatoes once more.
Fralia thought about questioning why the world was the way it was. Thought about running away despite the fact that she knew she had nowhere else to go, at least not yet. But she simply watched the back of Mrs. Gert as the stout old woman chopped mechanically for another moment, before she placed the knife to the side of the pile once more. The old woman turned and fixed Fralia with the briefest of glances before she headed into the common room to attend to the sailors while Fralia stayed in the kitchen.
Fralia looked at the big chopping knife left by the pile of potatoes and gingerly walked toward it. Mrs. Gert always put the knife straight back into the drawer when she was done with it, but today she hadn’t. Fralia’s eyes lingered on the thick blade for what felt like hours before she gently and tentatively caressed the age-worn wooden handle. Without even checking if Mrs. Gert had returned Fralia tucked the knife up into her sleeve and retreated into the rear yard.
Fralia sat on the stump in the rear yard. She felt the cold of the knife’s iron blade as it pressed against her forearm, but she didn’t mind. She never minded the cold. She dwelled on Mrs. Gert’s words, while this might have been Fralia’s first encounter with a man like this she was not ignorant of what he represented.
She closed her eyes and saw the scene that was etched into her being. She was five bodies lying prostrate on the ground as flames seemed to lick up and consume the world itself. Fralia wanted to scream but whenever she opened her mouth smoke poured in and swallowed up the sound before it could escape her throat. She watched as the dancing flames grew still, like things sculpted from colored ice.
I can spare them you know girl. The voice boomed through her very being, causing her teeth to rattle and the marrow in her bones to quiver. All you have to do to repay me is give me five things of equal worth.
At the time and even now Fralia had no idea what this voice was, but it was offering to save her family and that was something she would pay any price for. She nodded once and a sound like a thousand claps of thunder echoed through Fralia’s skull as she drifted into unconsciousness.
When she awoke she was back in her bed, her real bed in her family home, with hint of fire or smoke to be found. The only thing out of place was the single sheet of creamy vellum resting on her breast. As she picked up the single page she saw the words written in an ink that was impossibly black. “The souls of five spared, in exchange for something of equal worth. The deal is struck. Five souls are owed, not counting your own at your passing.”
Fralia sat on the stump as the day dragged on and the sun finally set. She knew deep in her gut that the sailor that had harassed her today would be back, if not today or tonight, eventually he would return. He wasn’t the type of stoop to apathy like the miller son, he was more like the sow pig ready to lash out against the world.
Fralia thought on sailors and pigs and the handsome sons of millers as the sun painted the sea a deep wine red. She thought on deals struck and the small family far away in Dorvton that she couldn’t bring herself to be around. She thought of deals struck with things unknown and best left alone. She thought of gold-painted iron candlesticks placed just too close to a curtain, candlesticks brushed with just slightly too much force, and candlesticks that wobbled just too far and eagerly shared the hungry flame that crowned them with the rest of the world.
A cento is a poem made by using lines of other poems. While this uses lines from other things, they aren't lines from poems. Bonus points if you can find all the things I lifted lines from.
This one isn't super coherent, it does have a general theme and I do like the tone of it, but it more a series of lines I got in my head that I wanted to commit to paper. I may return to this one and refine it.
Can you paint me back home in Wyoming,
in that hidden place where the thunder rolls?
Can you paint me a Birmingham,
a place I’d know if I was a lucky man?
Can you send me to Amarillo by morning,
home of the lost troubadours?
Can you tell me the secret of a father’s love?
Or the story of three wooden crosses?