- Vol. 08
- Chapter 07
When I was eleven, I’d go over to my friend Clare’s house and we’d make up dance routines. Sometimes, if it was a good song, I’d let myself go completely, and then I’d catch Clare kind of looking at me, like an alarmed glance, and I’d quickly rein it back in and return to shuffling my feet.
One time, I went over, and Clare got sick. Lock-yourself-in-the-bathroom sick. I sat outside asking her if she was okay. She wasn’t. I asked if I should ring her mum at work. She didn’t think so. In the end, I knocked on her brother Mattie’s door.
‘Clare’s sick. She’s in the bathroom.’
‘Did she eat cheese again?’
‘She shouldn’t do that.’
Mattie was thirteen. His room had brown curtains and was full of reptiles. He fed them crickets, only some had escaped and were now living behind his bookshelves.
I stood on the threshold, peering over his shoulder.
‘You want to see them?’
Inside, he talked me through the tanks: the geckos, a couple of lizards, and a yellow and white corn snake, who lived on mice Mattie kept in his mum’s freezer.
‘It’s so pretty.’ And there must’ve been something about the way I said it, because Mattie asked if I’d like to hold his snake. You’re probably feeling uncomfortable now and wondering what’s coming next, which means I’ve given you the wrong impression, because Mattie was luminous. That’s the only way to describe him. He was a luminous boy, and for a few short years he was a luminous teenager and then he went and died of leukemia, so no one got to see if he would go on to become a luminous man.Read more >
The river people tried to break out of the river while Itchy Peter Robinson did his most hideous face to keep them afraid. He was 13 years from retirement and itchy as hell.‘Worm whiskers!’ one of the river people shouted, and Peter shook and trembled.
‘You’re not scaring them at all,’ Bethany hissed in his ear. Bethany was Peter Robinson’s first daughter; she was riding his back and refused to wear the little cloth saddle that Peter had provided for her, so her bristly leg rubbed back and forth on his sore skin.
Itchy Peter Robinson roared and trembled: ‘Fear me, river people! Listen to my roaring!’
Peter’s second daughter was Sandra. Sandra liked to float alongside and shout nasally about strategies for scaring. Sandra wanted Peter Robinson to wear red lipstick, and Bethany thought that he should wear bells in his hair. Peter was 13 years from retirement: he had been scaring river people for 200 years, and now he had bells in his hair, and he could taste oily lipstick on his fangs.
‘Rarr rarr!’ bellowed Peter; he was furious with the river people, who were laughing at him, and his skin was incredibly itchy.
One river person was hunched over, shaped like a shoe, and he came out of the river and said, ‘You look stupid, Peter Robinson.’
And Peter had to use his flaky white coils to slap that shoe-shaped-river-person back into the water.Read more >
She started out by feeding it cat food. Turns out it prefers biscuits. It’s very favourite is peanut butter, offered on a teaspoon.
Bella listens to the slow currents of Adam’s breathing. Out of the corner of her eye, she watches his chest rise and fall as he is carried gently through the flow of sleep. She pictures the floors above and under them. The other bedrooms, same but different. The blaze of her wide-awake eyes, her sleepless nothingness, sandwiched by floating, peaceful bodies. As above, so below.
Her bones jangle inside her. She presses her knuckles to her temples, imagines trying to explain it all to Adam. Explain it is something she just has to do, for both of them. She imagines her teeth like the keys of a xylophone, words wobbling out of her in a mess. As within, so without.
She lies still. Waits until it is so late it is almost early. Until the chalky green light of spring starts to seep under the curtain. She slips out of bed, freezes at the door to check Adam hasn’t woken. Pulls on her dressing gown, adds a scarf. The clunk of the lock matching the thud of her heart.
In the stairwell, she sits, pressing the palms of her hands into the burn of ugly industrial carpet. The tang of disinfectant catching at the back of her throat, the air fogged with dust.
Like a statue, she waits for the echoing click, for the flood of automatic light to evaporate. Looks for the oil slick shimmer of its eyes in the dark.
It won’t come out until the light is gone.
Over the months Bella has visited, it has grown stronger. It moves more easily, fluidly. Her eyes adjust, taking in it’s milky sheen, almost luminous in the shadows. It nuzzles its head into her palm, cold to the touch. She threads her fingers through it’s fringed mane.Read more >
The current is as calm-green as ever, souls easing along.
The now-here is storm-blue, curly with waves, wind biting
as you jostle for balance on a twisting beam of moonshine.
The spirit rears and springs and churns, no time to twist
and check you are clinging on – after all, he didn't invite you,
you just felt solid, silver not-there-ness rise beneath you,
then found yourself above the surface, numb, draped in pink.
Still, the jade passage calls, a world that is always moving,
with no room for breath or fear or decision, only resting,
letting yourself be carried, on and on and on, to an infinity
you cannot understand – surely we all must end and begin.
Perhaps, that is why he pulled you out, or why you climbed,
up onto his back, into the sharp, gritty air, to keep growing
and counting, untangling it all, when it seems impossible.
They called it a dragon, the folk who lived by the luminous river, a river dragon, a god, spirit, creator. But the folk who lived in the river knew better. The half-fish, the dolphin people and the fishwives knew it was no dragon. The folk who lived by the luminous river trailed the pale tail they called legs and covered it in long robes out of modesty and the women covered their pale faces out of modesty too even if the men wore their boy-barbels with pride. The river folk though knew what was behind the veil and beneath the robes.
In the river, the people with dolphin snouts or fish fins or whose arms and legs were clad in the glinting mirror scales of deep sea fishes swam back and forth on the tides, going about their eternal business of water-rippling, colouring the foam white, tressing water weed. They paid no heed to the monstrous pale thing, catfished and face-painted that had crawled out of the reactor and coiled about the world. What could be done to them had been done. But the folk who lived by the luminous river and thought they were men, had still some sport left in them.
The thing that crawled out of the reactor stretched and uncoiled, rippled out of the water, wrapped a coil or two about a mountain, and squeezed hard. A shower of mountain folk fell like ripe plums, rolled screaming from their caves and perches, down to the river that flowed like a luminous necklace in the darkest night.
The catfishy thing glowed with pleasure and shook its barbels gaily, spraying the withered grass-sedge with the stuff that withered and watched it wither more. A woman rolled, covered in dust, her hair tangled with bramble and mountain muck, into the pale thing that reared and roared, and though she screamed, it took her anyway.Read more >
My nurture’s not learned facebook codes,
features, distinct, specific rôles,
the mounted stance, perspective’s tale,
of limbs, limp fingers, wrists or toes.
Wound purple weave, mauve spin in wind –
this Isadora, one way trail –
but can this be their ferryman?
These gravest issues undermined,
wound bloated coil, Styx, stones, grey clay,
patala or some foreign zone;
a passport to my known unknowns,
if I should hitch, try-tag-along.
But why did this unknown so pose?
Was it from grief in fear or hope?
Perhaps tradition reassures?
A credal loyalty declared?
Or maybe this their requiem?
Which eroteme confirms my nose,
the universal scene in one?
Kaliya climbs, seeks wellcome, trust –
swirl of refurbished stairway asp,
but not so easy underground;
this boarding pass for journeyman,
red-riding hood, another tail.
Writhe often seems infinity,
a lemniscate forever here,
still squirming on from Eden’s tree,
or any lore, backstory, myth;
Read more >
is it nightmare all along
lost in every wriggle and turn
thoughts break free the reins are gone
the created monster rises to spurn
your outstretched hands your stripped strength
panic in the friend who watches on
knowing there is no wavelength
to block out what you summon
the moon dead waifs who haunt
the broken landscape the worm is out
gaze fixed, wide eyed, and gaunt
now certainty is doubt
Unlike usual evening walks
Yesterday, inaudible steps turned to the shore
With mom’s clear warning ringing in my ears
I grinned and decided otherwise, thinking
“What harm can simple strolling even brew?”
La la la la la laaa
Avoiding diversions all along
As I arrived, the sun skipped its horizon
The warm breeze was heavy
With childlike moaning
Undecided, through narrow slits, I glanced
A curious little face covered with tears, peeped
I extended a friendly hand and patted his back
Assured, he managed a smile, through curtains of sorrow
I talked for a while, about the weather, the clean water,
Evening, stars … and of home
A cloud of gloom settled on his countenance
I asked if he was lost, he replied negatively
Then I asked no further
I mentioned leaving and somber he grew
“Maybe you could accompany me?”
He nodded affirmatively
Beaming into the night, we marched home
Granny’s stocking slipping greyly slack
Floppy bicycle tyre, shucked off mastic
Halloween body-sucker snuffling sea-wrack
Slimey spit of chewing-gum elastic
Leathery belt of drowned swash-buckler
Flayed skin flip-flap in a watery morgue
Alien marsling, spineless cyborg
Cow’s bladder zeppelin, sunk submariner
Plasticine rudder of the Marie Celeste
Grandad’s bandage floating in the night
Curdled milk slop fridge-floor slicking
Giant maggot in Frankenstein’s chest
Flaccid pig paunch of flesh-roll white
Pin-eyed piñata plump for bursting.
The deep cerulean waves carrying you in the wild blues yonder
riding on the slithering wave
My handsome rider on a serpent’s back
skies pitted with the souls of the elders
Those who guide us and lit our paths like a shining beacon
waves lapping the pain in my heart winds singing the lullaby
as a tourniquet to my broken heart—
Seeded with deary desires to see your face but once
As you ride the warm air with the grace of kings
as you travel to the destination unknown
air is suffused with warm scent of pink frangipanis
leaving the trail of perfume to warm my heart for nights so many
Destined to find moist soil of future that will reap the
fruits of our labor,
Dreams birthing through our calloused hands
Painted with silver dust for the kingdom to come
As I stand beside you to see the crimson visage
a bowlful of questions pitted in my soft eyes—
to hear the last traces of your stentorian voice
as it warms every corner of my soul
A parting gift for our wounds,
a tourniquet for my bleeding whole.
There was sound coming from the staircase,
not the one that goes upstairs
the other one.
The TV was on in the waiting room
when I was young and
My grandfather was ending and you spoke
stories of misted woods in lyre suites
in cloudy robes and river songs
in details that you could only know
if you had been there,
the TV was on.
Age made me understand the things you did for me,
always with the TV on in the background,
and something monumental remaining unspoken.
You made me a hoodie, because you had to.
You crossed the crucifix in the morning
because you were running out of ideas.
You didn't cook for me, you danced
through the inexplicable
while rain fell on the blue buckets.
You breathed the cosmic into
a frying pan
the walk to school
the first time in hospital
the other times in hospital.
The woman at the bus stop had told him about the water dragons. That they could bring back the dead. On the river, at night. Just for a brief moment, mind you. She was clutching a number of plastic bags, filled with Godknowswhat, plastic bottles maybe, clothes, paper. ‘And you have to bring a gift. Something that belonged to the dead person. And when you drop it into the water, you say:
‘As I lose what was given,
I gain back what was lost.’
Although he buried his head deep in his pillow that evening, sleep evaded him. He missed her so. Ten years. Her gravestone, with its rounded top and carved suggestion of an angel’s wing resting on it, had turned from sandy yellow to grey. Before too long, it would be black. Just as she had wanted.
He reached into his bedside table and took out the scarf. It was light and soft. Silk. With turquoise flowers and peacocks. For a while, it had retained her scent. Now there was barely a trace left. Just as he wasn’t sure anymore what exactly her voice had sounded like. Or her steps on the stairs. Her hands he did remember, though: small, the skin a little rough from frequent washing. As doctors did.
It was cold by the riverbank, and dark. The water flowed past with a quiet gurgle here and there. There was little in the way of wind, and the black silhouettes of the trees opposite looked expectant. He took the scarf out of his pocket.
‘As I lose what was given,
I gain back what was lost.’
He let it slip from his hand. As it sank into the water, the peacocks started to move, displaying their plumage. He blinked. It was gone.Read more >
It really is not going to end well – especially if Mum ever finds out. He promised to stop the affairs if she gave him one last chance. Again. All lies – he is incapable of being faithful to the one lady to survive his scaly embrace for more than fifteen years. The nameless, half-naked woman sits there, all unsuspecting. She lied about her age, taking shocking liberties with the truth, but that doesn't matter – she is not destined to get any older. Her legs kick with a childish glee, the pink silk scarf flapping in the salt-edged breeze. Might as well enjoy her last few hours on Earth. He whispers sweet nothings, his voice bypassing straight into her cerebral cortex. She was looking for love and romance. He just wants dinner. Does that still count as cheating?
Technically, Dad is supposed to be teaching me all about predator – prey dynamics. Easy for a twenty feet long sea serpent with a fake profile on five different websites and a stash of sunken gold. Only the top half of me can pass as human and I am rather short for my age. My lessons in casting a glamour camouflage to hide my true form are not getting any better. He is not a patient teacher and shouts a lot, says that I do it on purpose. Mum tells me to give it more time but what does she know? She has no idea what it is like to be a teenager with scales and a tail, awash with raging hormones from not one but two very different species. Just once I would like to go for a paddle and feel sand squish between toes I will never have, instead of undulating sulkily in his wake. Just for once, I want him not to play with his food and start listening to me. Is that really so much to ask?
As long as she rides her vortex
she'll be fine. Her vortex looks hardened
along the way by chance encounters,
but as long as she stays saddled
in the dimple of her own seat
it doesn't matter that she's half-naked,
perplexed, draped in dated chiffon,
ignoring each three-handed stranger
imposing upon her time.
As long as she straddles her space,
she won't mind the loss of odd folios,
blushing thoughts she leaves behind.
But if she loses her balance—
takes a tumble from her calcified
creation into the ghost stream,
she'll forget everything
along with the rest of the drifters.
She'll forget running fingers through
the wind, splaying toes
along the labyrinth, refusing
to acknowledge each younger, less
developed trajectory along the way
vying for her attention,
challenging her, inviting her
to dismount, discover, dissolve.
Grandma used to darn her tights. She’d darn them until they were ‘more holey than righteous’. Then she’d collect them all up in an old Sainsbury’s bag that lived in the cupboard under the stairs and when she had enough, she’d knit a long tube and stuff it. Full. Of holey tights.
The last tube she knitted was bubblegum pink, chocolate brown and bogey green. Sammy said that she’d made it specially to look like one of those blocks of stripey Italian ice cream. She’d really just used up all the spare bits of wool she could find, in the cupboard under the stairs.
Sammy named the tube Sid. Sammy wasn’t very original. He cried when I told him that. He said that Grandma would have liked the name Sid and that I was just mean and that he would tell on me. He didn’t. We never told on each other. Sammy took Sid everywhere we went. I told him that Sammy was supposed to stay home, by the back door, where Grandma had put him first, to stop the wind blowing under the gap. But Sammy wouldn’t leave him. In the summer, we piled into the car, Mum driving; Sammy, Sid and me in the back. Sid sat in the middle, curled partly round Sammy’s arm, with his tail resting on me. Sammy slept a lot and then threw up. On Sid. Sammy cried.
We stopped by a lake and Mum said we could go in a rowing boat. I’d always wanted to go in a rowing boat and go forwards while I was facing backwards. I whispered to Sammy that he could wash Sid in the lake. Get rid of the sick. Sammy hung Sid over the side of the boat but Sid got heavier and heavier until Sammy’s arms hurt hanging on to him. Sammy let him go and Sid’s bubblegum tail slipped under the water. Sammy cried.
When winter came, the cupboard under the stairs was empty. The wind blew under the back door and the house was cold. We were all cold. Without Sid. And Grandma.
Some say we all came from the sea
Where creatures, indubitably,
Odd birds of a feather,
In depths that would stun you and me.
Some say, yes, and it is believed
They could race with incredible speed.
Those with bodies like snakes
Won ev-er-y race
While the footed ones could not succeed.
But with feet and a ten-pack of toes
Came a brain that eventually rose
To the challenge of racing,
With clever thoughts pacing,
riding bare back became their next pose.
So… this creature with awkward two feet
Charmed a snake and then took a seat
Upon its curved back
Then gave it a smack
And hung on until he could leap
Across the afore chosen line
That would a new champion assign.
He there claimed his laurel,
Some sea-salted floral,
That thrived in this pre-ancient brine.
Read more >
If our fear had a cartoon face,
large eyes like marbles,
a lion’s mane for hair,
and the body of a soft, plush toy snake,
would we run, take cover?
Or would we jump on fear’s back,
hold weathered leather reins in our hands,
take charge of our journey?
The dark, tumultuous river of tomorrow
is not as deep as we think.
There are moss-covered stones,
a slippery softness on the toes,
if we brush past with bold, bare feet
instead of shyness.
The second-guessing self stands on the edge
of the riverbank, imploring us
to slow down, turn back,
seek out shallow waters,
crawl up on grassy, unmoving land.
Once the fear dwindles in size,
becomes almost comical in its outlandish
at once reptile and mammal-mouthed,
our misgivings become barely audible.
Purpose drives us forward.
We float on the river of today
without raft or paddle.
Faith has buoyancy.
We will not sink.
It’s not quite a nightmare,
more like the scariest
part of a funfair.
And there’s a snake, named
after a far away constellation,
that moves in and out of
the measurement of Pi.
And that snake’s all smiles
and black kettle eyes,
and it slings off its lightning
into some ancient ode.
And while you’re riding its
shoulder blades into blizzards,
you raise up your hands,
heavenward, and swallow
an immortal pill as you fall
through a distant constellation
named after a far away snake,
and you wake up just before all
of your magic runs out.
It caused quite a commotion, when the gods decided to reorganise. They spoke to the animals first, because none of it was their fault.
'We have a solution to your problem,' the gods told the animals, speaking very softly, so as not to alarm them. 'We’re going to make some changes.'
The problem, as everyone knew, was the people. The gods were reluctant to wipe them out entirely, since they were very good at prayer and song, and the gods loved to hear themselves talked about. No, the people would not be destroyed, only transformed. The people could keep their voices, speak from their own mouths, but they would lose those opposable thumbs of theirs, that they used to make weapons and shoot them, and all the slaughtering, chopping and polluting would stop. No, people would exchange their hands for wings, flippers, fins or paws… but the animals worried, what would all those people become?
The gods decided to let the people choose. They went to speak to them, but there were too many for the gods to talk to all at once. So, they went first to those who already listened for them, the attentive. The gods spoke to them in whispers, and let them choose, and these people chose to become porpoises and dolphins, seals and fish, and they swam and they sang their songs underwater, and they were happy.
Then the gods went to the people who needed a nudge to listen; a flash of sunlight through the trees, a gust of warm wind. These people were easily distracted, but they knew the truth when they heard it, and they listened to the gods talk, and chose to swap their hands and arms for feathered wings. They became owls and wrens, sparrows, curlews and chatty jackdaws. They flew with the birds and they sang their songs and they were content.Read more >
The umbilical cord, the incense that heralds a new birth, the smoke that rises from handi labored sustenance, the fumes above a pyre, the serpent’s tail scampering off into the thick, all turns and twists of creation, celebration, destruction that I can recite in ballads of kingdoms underground, overground, guarded by Nehebkau or Chanes and serpent keepers with variant arms and tails, and commoners roaming around animated. I can recite limericks too to lighten the mood. Once upon a time a serpent lived across the moat/He had a beard like that of a goat/The goat he ate/His own beard was the bait/The serpent who lived from across the moat. But does it help? Nummo and Nagas and all other avatars, serpents are intertwined with humanity. Humanity which portends good, bad and evil. The she and he, and everyone else. Mega leaves with bodies lying, free falling with odd fishes in tow in a tormented sky of vomit green. And the handler with his one foot cramped against the serpent’s neck, forcing a predicated outcome has the serpent aghast. Splitting hair framing her neck, mouth drooped, eyes quizzing. Some unbeknownst hands create zigzag patterns in the dirt, like escape routes out the maze, reminding life is in our hands. Don’t blame the serpent, mythologies, reincarnations. Don’t be fooled by stories you did not write or witness. Don’t write stories of destruction by the serpent and give a pass to the rider. Don’t then bid the nagini to the sacrifice. Do you think she will comply?
The white worm left his lair.
Well he had to at some point
if he was to inspect the neighbourhood
to see what was what,
who was coming,
who was going
and there was no way
that he would keep
to Bram Stoker’s script,
no way at all
he’d always been a rebel.
But he didn’t know about the dare,
didn’t know she was lying in wait,
waiting to leap on his back,
waiting to be taken for a ride
by the man in red
who was keeping check
that she obeyed the rules.
The worm turned
his head in alarm.
If only he’d kept to the script.
If only he’d stayed safe
Every thing needs a spirit, and every
spirit needs a thing.
Every morning, the clear-eyed beast
puts me on like a cloak, a clock,
a passport, a point
of entry into this. I am: its home
address, its current set
of keys, coordinates. It has
many eyeholes – I am one set.
Would you like to see it,
the white that will remain when I
am said and done? How it moves me,
and I know that there is only one, so you
must be it too.
How would we know ourselves
it if were not for our separation,
sortation into various bags of skin?
I say: touch me, that it may touch itself.
I live in tornado alley at the northern tip but was born in the southern grip of the Ohio Valley where heated river currents spawn torrential funnels
that churn fields, wood, concrete, and steel.
That was where I learned to ride the twister’s tail—those great serpentine winds—to let them blow through me, to open like the windows and doors of our house as the vigor and drama
sank through skin and muscle, slid over bones and blew away
like demons from a nightmare.
The twisting tail drilled roots in soil that it wasn’t meant for and in its cycling coils,
it swept away both the dead and the living, both loose particles of tilled soil
not yet planted, seeds not yet rooted, the dreams of some
and the lives, too, leaving no promise
that it would not come again.
I learned to ride the green sky and bear the nearness
of Armageddon like those of us who were born
in the serpent’s path.
It came at night when the light was off
the moon was the backdrop it flew by
I held my breath and focused my eyes
as the curtains merged with the sky.
Lithe, long and with the head of a man
it moved through the flowers around it
the curtains swayed as it slithered up
my bedroom transformed and moon lit
In awe I watched its body corkscrew
through the fabric draping my window
on its back rode the usual man
as I snuggled into my pillow
Drawn as I was to stare in its eyes
I felt myself always grow sleepy
and I’d fall into that magical world
of serpents and dreams so deeply
I rode the serpent, and he rode me, spreading my legs in a skirt cut from my mother’s dress. She feared I’d fall victim, repeat her “mistake.”
He was slippery but, as he arched and moaned when we coiled nightly, I played with his beard.
It was older than I was, smelled of tobacco and coffee. Stuck in it were bubbles of spit and hiss about his wife and tears that sometimes rolled down before he could wipe them.
It was curly, ginger and grey like rusty wire. It’d catch my tongue when we argued, but I soon found I was sharper. He’d apologize. I wouldn’t and was slow to kiss, blaming his prickliness rather than his beard.
My mother—horrified—called it May to December and told me the tale again and again, how my father had slithered away when he learned about me.
Neither she nor he knew the lash of the serpent’s tail that was coming: twins.
They were ready when it came,
with gleaming, sharpened swords,
and a shaman’s armoury of words.
For weeks, the serpent had, each hour,
captured, slaughtered and devoured
their chickens and their laying hens.
It watched from the river deep,
while they groaned in restless sleep.
Now they waited; stomachs grumbled
and overhead thunder rumbled.
The serpent rose from the raging river,
smaller than they had imagined,
its hair was weedy, it wasn’t wild,
and it was startled when a child
approached with fruit in hand.
The adults couldn’t understand
how an innocent gesture broke
the spell, how empathy spoke
a language, child to beast,
with the sharing of a simple feast.
"Engrossing, beguiling, and with an undertow of menace, Before the Ruins is a masterly debut from a richly talented author." – Sarah Waters
This issue of Visual Verse is published in collaboration with Serpent's Tail to celebrate the publication of Before the Ruins, the debut novel of British writer, Victoria Gosling.
Serpent's Tail, an imprint of Profile Books, has a 35-year history of publishing brave and innovative writing, with authors like Michel Houellebecq, Nella Larsen, Lola Shoneyin and Colm Tóibín. But it is their championing of progressive, often transgressive, voices that we most admire. Their list is full of gems like Kathy Acker, Virginie Despentes, Chris Kraus and Torrey Peters (author of Detransition, Baby, which is an absolute must-read for 2021).
We are thrilled to showcase the work of two new Serpent's Tail authors. Victoria Gosling is joined by Alice Ash, whose "irresistibly strange" debut short story collection Paradise Block was just released in February.
Find these writers and many more on the Serpent's Tail website...