• Vol. 08
  • Chapter 07

Lucy

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?’
I shrugged.
‘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.

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1

Itchy Peter Robinson
and the River People

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.

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2

Night Visits

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.

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3

Risen

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.

4

Nostalgia

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.

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5

Ignorance Exposed

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;
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6

When the worm turned

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

7

MOM WAS SO ANGRY WHEN I BROUGHT LUCIFER HOME

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

Nonchalant,
I mentioned leaving and somber he grew
“Maybe you could accompany me?”
He nodded affirmatively
Beaming into the night, we marched home

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8

Hagfish Sonnet

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.

9

Parting

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.

10

Ocean Song

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
inexplicable.
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 woodlands
the streets
the other times in hospital.

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11

The Scarf

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.

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12

Here be Wyrms

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?

13

Stay The Course

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.

14

Sid Lived by the Back Door

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.

15

The Human Race

Some say we all came from the sea
Where creatures, indubitably,
Cavorted together,
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.


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16

Conquering the River of Tomorrow

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
shape-shifting form,
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.

17

Ophiuchus

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.

18

Reorganisation

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.

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19

Nagini that may not comply

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?

20

The White Worm

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
off piste
watched
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
at home.

21

What are we?

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.

22

Tornado

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.

23

Curtain Call

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

24

I Rode the Serpent

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.

25

A Serpent’s Tale

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.

26

Bellyful of Lies

When your belly is heavy with lies
you succumb your legs to slither instead.

You may dust a glow of honesty lightly upon your cheeks
powdering the cracks,
treacherously – some might say.
Overused insta-filter.

You may slick your hair with spittle of venom
so from afar it gleams – glossy and grand.
Claim you're a natural blonde
as you sashay through life
chewing off white mice
skinning them for a platinum weave.

At home, alone, you drown yourself
soaking in bubbling bitterness
scrubbing at your sooty stomach,
popped and protruding
making it harder for you to haul
your bellyful of lies.

27

Oh! Medusa

reduced mostly to creeping, slithering, splashing about
turning cartwheels and feeding on garfish or mackerel

the spawn of your latest coupling with the anaconda
appear, at first sight, not unlike eels or lampreys. Look

they are a joy to watch as I stroll across Pendine Sands
in the morning mist; a living gift born to us out of myth

and here, where there is no sun, they have become
the epitome of hope, radiating warmth as they dash

and flip, chasing each other in and out of rock pools
where sea anemones blush at their antics. Faux pas or not

Medusa, you have blessed us with a charming race.

28

Serpentine

Serpentine, I’d like to make you mine:
you shouldn’t wonder
would I pull you under?
Just take it slow
my waters flow like wine.

You picnickers and panickers
nit-picking at your children by the river:
I could make you forget all your cares –
I’m timeless, baby,
won’tcha come on over?

See the spirits sunbathing on the shore?
They swam into my swirl
like twigs a-twirling.
And see my lady with the serpent’s tail?
She’s oh-so fine, her velvet hair unfurling.

And me? I’ve been here since the dawn of time
and to the end I’ll linger;
face still like stone
statuesque, serpentine:
river spirit, life-giving dead-ringer.

29

A Serpentine Adventure

One does not have to go,
Coiled on a one hand
white-tail serpent.
The hennaed hand stops,
But the grim realities stay unchanged.
One then has to go and
See what the lotuses bring out,
Right from the depth of their muddy roots
Sprinkled as dew drops,
Lining the edges of the sky,
Many have gone before, and
I will not be the last.
It is true, one does not have to go,
And yet fate does call.

30

Skin

A serpent slipped into the house one night through an open window and found a place to hide.

The husband did not know and neither did the wife. Of course they did not know, because who would be foolish enough to let a serpent in so easily?

The serpent made a comfortable nest at the bottom of a cupboard the couple no longer opened. The cupboard was dark and dusty, mothball scented. It was a sad place stuffed full of things that the husband and wife had discarded from the lives they had lived in another country, when they had been happy.

Curled into old clothes that no longer fitted nor suited the climate, the serpent was warm and content. It was also hungry. So it ate up the bad feeling in the house. Its tongue flickered every time the husband rolled his eyes. Its mouth opened wide as the wife complained. It fed on each small shrug of irritation, drew sustenance from each word said in anger. Then came the feast nights, when the arguments roiled through the house for hours. No room was spared, no door unslammed. The serpent gorged itself.

Months passed. The serpent stayed hidden and it kept feeding. It listened and grew fat, shedding skin after skin. In the darkness of the cupboard, the colour left its scales. In the darkness, it turned a pallid white, a moon white, and its eyes grew large and wide. The serpent filled the cupboard now, splintering the shelves, displacing the junk. It was knotted in on itself, muscles cramped. It was time to leave. It was time to mate.

The husband did not know. But late one afternoon, the wife went upstairs and found the cupboard door open. She looked inside. The old familiar clothes were no longer neatly folded, the space was in disarray. Something had been living there.

Read more >
31

SOMETIMES IT’S NOT WORTH THE EFFORT

The contortionist he had a love
and an extra oxter-arm.
So transfixed was he, poor cove,
by her flaunted charms
he’d waste the day for the mañana
to ogle pink bandanas.

Though haughty maid would pass him by
preferring steed of myth,
he’d dutifully serenade
though he knew she took the pith.

Eventually, to spite despair,
and prove he was no sucker
He sought out a Sussex witch
to try to woo the beauty
She spelled him Wyrm with scales unfair.
What a silly Knucker.

32

Taming a seaslug

Dress your hair with lotus flowers. Wind chiffon scarves around your torso in shades that compliment their feathery cerata. Ditto your loincloth, armour against toxic nematocysts as you straddle the wild seaslug. Be barefoot. The untamed nudibranch is susceptible to podiatric rubbing. See how the rhythmic friction softens their expression, turns them trancelike, eyes dreamy as you massage. Whisper the names they love. Marigold sea-rabbit. Splendid dragon dancer. Never call them clown. In their presence, people hold their heads in their hands or thrash around in watery green panic. You know what you're up to. Summon charcoal clouds. Those tiny teeth will never razor you.

33

‘Grand Rapid Prodigal’

So it turns out my new job is to be
a ghost in my own life. I mean, who
better but also: the way my luck is
running right now I’d probably lose

out to a newly-landed alien, or a
hammered sea serpent with a Skittles
fixation and a grudge against time.
I dunno why you’re trying to ride me

to somewhere better – I’m famed for
pulling up at the second fence, and
then waiting, pouting, tail crossed
for redemption, forgiveness, baffle-

ment all at once. Christ we are all
languishing while dreams turn to
pollen running through our fingers.
Did I tell you my dearest wish is

only to write a novel called ‘Grand
Rapid Prodigal’? Of course not, why
leave myself open like that? Be
vulnerable the self-help maestros say,

and all that’s left me with is a beard
of Persian ironwood and three twitches
in my left eye.

34

The river monster

I think my belly rolls are well-hidden under the blue wrap I borrowed from my mum. The sun is scorching as we sit on the pier. I’d love to go for a swim but Claire thinks proper ladies never get wet, they just show off on the beach. She and Tanya giggle about something to my left but I’m concentrating too hard on sucking my belly in to be able to hear what they’re saying. Suddenly, Claire leans to me and says in a loud whisper, “Soph, you’re all right.” She looks at me meaningfully. What’s she saying?

“But we can’t risk being seen with you anymore,” she goes on. “You know …” Her cold blue eyes drop to my waist before she looks at my face again. “We just don’t fit.” The hint of a smile on her thin lips is as sharp as a shard of glass in my gut.

Claire’s hair is tied into ponytails and she wears sunglasses with glittery pink frames. I don’t even own a pair of sunglasses and Mum needs hers, so I borrowed my father’s aviators. I thought they made me cool but the way Claire glances at them atop of my head I probably look ridiculous. It doesn’t matter how hard I try to imitate her, I’ll always be Fat Soph.

A muggy heaviness presses on my shoulders as Claire leaves me on the pier. Tanya follows her like a puppy along the crowded river bank. Their pink swimming suits glimmer in the sunshine. The only thing that glimmers on me is the sweat.

At least I can go swim now. I’m about to go to the end of the pier to jump in when a shadow falls over me.

“Hey,” a boy says as he sits down next to me without even asking for permission.

Read more >
35

the forever year

daisy chain, caged breath
and suddenly it was clear that walls do not matter

we had to reinvent god, we had to rewrite
a new kind of prayer

we know what happened by the River Piedra
what children drew with chalk on the pavement

in the forever year we turned inwards
and we dug up our way back to the garden

towards the green that returns again and again
in spite of its own scarring

we traced the outline of waves in wrapping paper
we saw the palm pressed against a windowpane

something other than a voice or a face
to overcome the longing and the sadness

as ‘for a while’ became indefinite
we bowed to everything that is smaller

than the days, the chores, the hours
we held the thought, and stocked up on candles

we sought shelter, to finally find
the hidden layer

36

The Nixies

On a moonless night, one of my sisters whispered to me about a man in red, so I rose to the surface of the river, safely shrouded in enchantments, to find out who he was. He carried a long net, and I shuddered at the sight of its snare. The man dragged the instrument along the banks, peering across the water, and I knew he would not see me – I was made of that which the river was – but terror clawed at me when he turned his face in my direction. I saw the yearning in his eyes; the man in red was here for us.

Years had slid downstream since a man in red had travelled far enough into the thickets to find our home, but we had not forgotten about those like him, nor our lost sisters, their skin and scales torn. Indigo blood had stained the grass by the river, and glistened on the spear-tips of men in red, who thought we belonged to them.

Back then, we had been callow, and unprepared to use the river’s magic to protect ourselves. This time, we were wilder, and certainly fiercer. I braced myself to change, to elongate, and stretch myself magnificently.

Suddenly, I saw another figure on the verges of the river, a tall woman, with fuchsia flowers tucked behind her ears, vivid even in the navy gloom of that bewitched hour. She followed behind the man in red, watchful.

Mallory, he called to her, hurry, this is where they ought to be, and soon you’ll see that I was always right, and you were always wrong. Mallory did not answer the man in red, but instead turned towards the water. At first, she glanced right past me, but then her eyes found mine. How, I did not know.

The man in red shouted into the dark, raising his net high, I know you’re here, sirens, and I will catch you. Read more >

37

Drifting Soul

Hard is the swim to shore
when you have been cast adrift,
your anchor gone
to all that held you together
and you are swept away
by the river
formed from your tears

Drifting soul,
you will not drown,
when you raise your head
above the water

you will see us
our hands and hearts
reaching out to you
waiting to bring you home

38

of Stormy nights as consequence to Traumatic lives

Those panes of glass in our window
look bowed, tonight
as though, taking a lengthy breath and finding
no respite to exhale;

like how people’s foreheads can also feel bowed
sometimes, ready – to burst, under
all that repressed pain, we glass over – far, too often

she asked
if marriage can ever be a realistic ambition, for us
and waited

I tiptoed away
Choosing instead to save our window
from choking.

Instantly, everything in our room
went berserk
as all that unfaced anguish of stormy wind
was allowed, in

and tore-up
all that delicate balance, we strived
to preserve
in our love’s: sanctuary bedroom;

by morning
I had it all straightened out
every frame – back, in its rightful place
Read more >

39

Serpent Tale

Women swim in the ocean with pilot whales, dolphins and manatees. Some sea creatures cure infertility. It’s their song, it penetrates, and mends. My mother taught me this. Whale song transformed my mother’s legs into a coiled fish tail. Nine months later I was born. Now I too am a woman, I go swimming, return home pregnant and riding on the back of a bearded serpent. I like his smile. Mother isn’t pleased. One hand on her breast, her eyes beseeching, she will not listen to any talk of romance, or marriage. I say, she should be more open-minded.

40

Heads and Tails

If there’s still
breath left in us

we resume the days

on the top of our
lives within lives.

We throw away
the corpses

we no longer need

we leave behind
the aims, the plans

our past hopes
and expectations.

We rejoice the moments

in bloom
holding the reins

and in a flash
the dark whirls

overtake our heads and tails.

41

On Sealed Wardrobes, Pressed Persons, and Life Linens

The dry cleaner closed early. Most nights by six. Large block letters in red and yellow print hugged the clean glass. OPEN – 6 to 6. CLOSED – 6 to 6. Symmetry in life, hems, and halos. Racks of freshly laundered, freshly pressed cloth wrapped in clear plastic-lined metal hangers attached to motorized mazes. Silent stories. Storied silence. If clothes could speak, what tales would they tell?

Just yesterday, I passed by the building at a quarter to six. A young girl stood on the carpeted platform, to the right of the glass front door. Both smudge free. She appeared to float – above bales of dark green silk and woven twine. Elastic bands gathered at her ankles. I believe I saw one snap. Pins and pinafores dispersed. Patterns, too.

The girl began to fumble, then flap – both arms and legs. No time to either hem or haw. She hovered somewhere in the space between Here and There. The wrapped garments jumped with wild anticipation. Paper wrap pranced. Faux leopard buttons roared. Wools tangoed with cottons.

Suddenly, the ceiling opened – its mouth wide, the color of craisins. A large circular fan, lodged in the room’s far left corner, rumbled. The girl and the garments flew. Wrapped linens along with stapled owner tags – logged for Tuesday to Thursday pick-ups, too.

Moments later, a slight hand rotated the laminated sign that was affixed to the cleaner’s front glass door. OPEN turned to CLOSED. The ceiling once again sealed. A vacuum guzzled in the distance – and the dark. Dust bunnies scattered and scrambled. Supper time. Time for super-sized suppositions. The clock struck one minute past the top of the hour. The dry cleaner closed early. Most nights by six.

42

Snakes and Ladders

The other children said I was weird
Whenever we played snakes and ladders
They always wanted to climb
Climb up the ladders to win
But me, I preferred sliding down
Down pythons and down adders

They liked to land on square twenty-eight
And climb the ladder to eighty-four
But I preferred to land on eighty-seven
Greeted by the smiling python
Purple and yellow with sinuous body
Working my way down
Following each twist, each turn
Until I land on twenty-four

I trusted the serpent
The serpent was wise
The serpent gave knowledge and wisdom
Knowledge and wisdom to Eve and Adam

And often when I was alone
I played the game and
On my favourite eighty-seven
With my eyes closed
I traced the twists
Traced the turns
Opening my eyes in a different land

Read more >
43

Malneirophrenia

I have roused as white as a false judge's wig.
My bones have been stolen, I remain an amorphous heap
and seem to have grown a tail I certainly didn't ask for.

I am too big for this river bed and already I can feel the touch
of alien skin steering me back into deeper waters again.

I hope for melancholic insomnia while I keep moving
dragging this unsolicited tale that will not open doors.

44

Ladders and snakes

Sitting unobserved and sipping coffee,
Lunchtime in the city,
A grey day clouded with dark thoughts.

Unnoticed at work,
A colourless drone,
Living in the netherworld of lost administrators.

Watching others slither upwards,
Devouring ideas,
Puffing themselves up with slick, venomous words.

Floating in a corporate sea,
Waiting for a new harvest of interns,
To welcome into their labyrinthine coils.

Suck out their enthusiasm and desire to please,
And regurgitated the ghost-like remains,
Into the limbo of lost hopes.

But small snakes can be more dangerous,
They can camouflage themselves,
Hide themselves in office comers.

They want to be unobserved,
Until without warning they strike,
And watch the Jörmungandr* of business fall.

*A sea serpent from Norse mythology that encircled the world.

45

Straightjacket

I was born all wrong, no limbs.

There were times when I didn't yet think, when I simply enjoyed sliding through grass and leaves and mud and water. Warm and cold. Firm and giving way. Darkness or day, I had no enemy. To be so quiet, I thought, so invisible, what a privilege. To feel the world skin on skin.

I grew in strength and, sadly, my mind grew with me. The first time I noticed: I'm alone, they always scatter when I'm near. The first time I realised I have no voice, nothing to appease them. My sorrow when I buried them in me, their lungs still pumping, but there is no air. Not in me.

I've seen others kill. A tiger leaping from his hiding place. An eagle's majesty, striking from above. The noise they make, the fighting. The ease with which I get them is a farce.

And yet they feed, I murder. They hunt, and I, the serpent, I end lives.

I used to think that nature made me to its pride. The way the sun still warms me selflessly, that at least has never changed. The roles we get. Watch out for the silent killer in your shadow. Watch out for the creeping serpent with the black eyes. The fates we seal. Born all wrong, unlike the others. I have my enemy, now.

46

It Will Live

The serpent will never die.
It will live in fingernails and knuckles,
in the sudden itch of late night skin.

It will slither through small talk
in pub gardens and Christmas parties.
It will wrap around indecision

and forgetting simple tasks
and the mulling over and mulling over
and repeating and repeating

and the constant fog.
The serpent will never die.
You will learn to ride it.

47

The Goddess

A woman who rides a curled white blob
Appears to me in dreams.
She always looks wobbly,
About to fall off,
But she never does,
Because the laws of physics do not apply in dreams.
Her hair is autumnal red;
The flowers that follow in her wake are amaranth pink.
Her appearance is always a comfort to me
Because I depend on her wisdom.

I ask her all my questions,
And she pants back the answers,
While her silent steed grunts and nods approval.
She is always a little disheveled
And answers too briefly,
As oracles always do.
What is the purpose of life? I ask her:
“To be able to say at the end of the day, ‘This was worthwhile.’”

What happens when we die?
“When you die, I shall no longer appear to you.”
Is the world real?
“You ask this in a dream?”
Is there life on other planets?
“And do you know what life is?”
Read more >

48

Thick

Never trust a man with a thick neck. Take it from me (I didn’t take it from her).

He wasn’t from the village. But I’d enjoyed the feel of him between my legs. The weight of him pressing against the mole there.

Sometimes I inadvertently got carried away with what felt nice. It was a habit of mine.

I’d heard him before I saw him, that first time. He wore a giant chain around the neck. A tarnished steel thing, worn down by relentless rubbing on flesh. A thick neck was to be revered where he was from. Him and his kind were constantly building strength there, chains placed on babies at birth, increasing in weight as they grew.

So, you’d hear him coming. ‘Clang, clang,’ he’d go. The ‘clang, clang’ would announce his arrival, some stocky emperor.

The village was yellow. It spanned the area from the water, up the hill and finally branching out into the expansive meadows at the top. The buttercup storm that had blown in several years back had left scarcely a patch free of the things. Tall, stately drops of sunshine covered the place, washing the landscape in a golden glow, even at night.

I’d enjoyed my time with him, amongst the vegetables and the wood in my tiny shop. But by the fourth time he wobbled into town, I no longer wanted him. I no longer wanted to feel his chubby hands on me. I’d mistaken his silence for mystery, when there was nothing to work out. This was another bad habit of mine.

So I positioned myself quite prominently on the veranda of the shop with Z, all splendour with her red hair flowing and the pink scarf billowing. I held onto her waist and I looked at him in the eye, and then I looked away.

Read more >
49

Dance of destruction

The multi-headed serpent Kaliya
takes up residence in the Yamuna river,
spewing venom that roils the water,
killing the cattle, terrorizing the townsfolk.

On the banks of the Yamuna, child cowherd
and flautist, the eighth avatar of Vishnu,
Krishna delights in pranks and stealing butter,
plays with his friends, till their ball rolls in the river.

Krishna bravely wades in, to reclaim the toy,
does underwater battle with Kaliya, pitting
omnipotence against strength, dodging fangs and poison,
emerging victorious, he dances on the serpent’s head
till Kaliya flees, and the waters run clear.
The villagers marvel at this wunderkind god.

In this Kaliyug, there are so many Kaliyas:
politicians, caretakers, trustees –
ready to turn a blind eye for a price
to industrial pollutants that sully the river.

Myths and religion are no match for greed.
Who will play Krishna’s role now?
Who will clean up the rivers of the world?
Who can cleanse water so clouded by sin?

50

Self Portrait

I paint myself in three colors
Taken from a long-awaited sunrise
To see how much depth I have
In the eyes of the sky.

My hand trembles
Birch twig handle and
Stamen brush. It would do better
Dipped in ink but I
Render myself to the
Language the creek speaks as it
Communicates over smooth rock
Palettes. The wind talks back
In empty caves
Up on the mountain.

Something enters my starkness
Perhaps it is the skittering of a
Blue jay bird in a solitary
Dogwood tree or
A rainbow trout glittering
In sunburn.

There is more to me than
I know. Looking at myself
I see not my corners but Curves softening out of
The edges.

51

A Curse

Watch a curse penetrating in homes and hidden allies.
Legless, invisible, a mutated fiend.
Choking people of their breaths,
Followed by a quiet numbness in the body.

Airing out in multiples,
And mocking on the entire mankind.

What kind of a satan it is,
This world is a sad sad thing now.

52

Hercules

A calm unremarkable departure from a large pebble beach, amidst a cool overcast sky, had brought our summer vacation towards its end. No swimming today, as our family slipped back to the large expanse of unmanicured grass that stretched behind the long row of beach huts.

DON’T DO IT, a voice inside my head froze.

‘This is Hercules,’ the horse ride attendant said. He was far larger than the others, as he towered above us. ‘A gentle giant,’ she said.

I cannot begin to imagine why my normally sensible, set-an-example mother, should want to embark on this rather risky, unpredictable attempt at having such a daring moment of fun. Hercules, a steaming chestnut of determination, flared his nostrils, as my mother was helped onto the saddle.

‘Would you like to trot?’ I heard her say. Hercules now champing at the bit.

‘DON’T DO IT MUM!’ I called, laughing hysterically as Hercules tossed his head. My father’s last-minute advice seemed to fall on deaf ears. This was no three-legged race at my school sports event or even the egg and spoon, I reminded her that she’d won. ‘YOU CAN CHANGE YOUR MIND!’ I yelled, as she smiled determinedly.

How we ran the race with her, as she wobbled and bounced, her cheeks smiling with elasticated fear and laughter. Hercules, faster than a trot, no longer in control, powered towards the photo finish with terrified exhaustion, as the attendant pulled with all her strength to an out-of-breath slow. We all laughed with relief and embarrassment as my mother dismounted without a second glance at Hercules. His glance spoke volumes.

53

Sacrifice

Out from the depths of black waters
the deathly snake, rises to the sky,
dancing in the light, trying to eat the sun
trying to satiate his indomitable tastes.

The fishes swim away, the mermen make way.
The turtles sneak back inside their shells,
the lotuses wilt, their pink stain the waters,
waves lurk obsequiously around his tail.

When he who was destined to be the monster
slayer, the snake-charmer, rubbed by courage
the right way, takes his rightful
place on the slithery neck of winter.

"Hey bhagwan," cries his mother. Her red saree is
draped over her head. "What is this boy
up to, he is going to get us killed," she slaps
her forehead. Her red bangles jingle and then break.

On some nights, when you see a furtive shadow
cross the moon, listen to the rustle of purple leaves.
Know that is him again, he who lassoed the monster
with his hymns, seeking the trees’ permission to dismount.

54

Maleficent

slithering in through the pores of my skin/ she makes her way into my bloodstream/ her body with a million miniscule limbs/ finds its way into my stomach, ruffling against my villi/ where she sits nestled – the white snake – as if her cosmos were my digestive system.

enmeshed, ensconced like water in a white conch/ her calls pierce my peace/ she is my puppeteer hidden within/ she commands my strings.

she is the rotten pit, she is the dreary spirit/ she hates, she abhors/ she dances like a Stygian river.

i try to be the lotus perfumed warrior against her/ my pink scarves and anklets of silver/ follow my body to battle/ a war with fear.

there is a sudden vortex/ my valour disappears/ and i retreat still armed, from my battle with Maleficent/ metallic tongued and lily-livered.

55

Saved by a Serpent

She needed a way across. The storm had torn the towering pines from the bank and tossed them onto the old wooden bridge, splintering the planks and shredding the rope strung between them. A damp sweat of rain still clung to the broad leaves of shrubs, too squat and low to be noticed by the hurricane. The water level was high – higher than she had seen it before. The surface bubbled and roared impatiently, racing strips of green and brown along its angry course. A rustle behind spun her round. A figure in white-stained red approached. She saw as it drew nearer the stains were a pattern of serpents coiling around the limbs of the figure.
‘You seek a way to cross?’ she heard. She looked intently at the figure. Its head was hooded and hidden.
‘Why, yes,’ she replied.
‘Is your need urgent?’ She considered the question.
‘It is,’ she replied.
‘Give me your cloak and I will provide you a way.’
‘My cloak?’ She felt the thick fabric of the cloak. It had provided warmth and protection from what she knew to be a cruel world. With her cloak she could hide, avoid attention and escape the taunts and jeers others were often ready to hurl at her. But her need to cross was urgent.
‘Well?’ asked the figure.
‘Yes. Yes, I will give you my cloak. But how can you help me cross?’
As the figure extended a gloved hand, a serpent slowly uncoiled from the arm of the red fabric. The serpent slithered smoothly down the bank and as it entered the water it swelled and grew.
‘There. My serpent will carry you across. Now give me your cloak.’
She did as she was bid, flinching at the expectation of a gasp of horror when the figure saw her uncovered form – her scars and livid skin, her deformed limbs.
Read more >

56

The More Imaginable Boss Battles

To be scared of the sea:
living in fear of the imagined,
the depths that could contain untold amounts
of Loch Ness Monsters and Giant Squids
and water dragons and Gyarados
and sharks as big as houses and
those fish with the tiny light in the darkness
but really they're one massive mouth.
Look down at the dark waves from the shore
or the precarious deck of a boat
and you'll imagine your descent into the abyss,
your never being found again.

To be scared of the future:
living in fear of the unimaginable,
for though you can think up
all the demons from the depths of hell
to torment your present, past,
and what ifs, you cannot
picture what could be in that blank void
beyond the murky devils,
the dark shapes that mean certain doom.
You can't defeat the image of a monster
that doesn't exist, not when
you've no idea what you'll need saving from.

57

Sweet Dreams (to my sons)

I closed my eyes and walked into a dream
that’s full of giants and the magic creatures.

I rode a dragon-shaped white, bearded snake
and danced along the length of rainbow bridges.

I strolled the sponge-soft banks of milk and kissel rivers
then built a raft of candy-canes and travelled up the stream.

I sailed the seven seas to find the pirates’ treasures
then flew up to the moon and touched the silver beam.

I slayed three-headed beast and saved a princess charming.

She softly kissed my head and whispered to my ear
with the voice so soft, it sounded like mummy’s:

“Good night, sleep tight, my darling,
and have the sweetest dreams.”

58

opalescent dream

i ride the wind catching whispers;
far away realms reminding me of what lies beyond the gateway
of my own intuition;
the whole world
becomes a golden spiral and i'm dizzy
i lick my lips with a nectarine tongue but the faint taste of vomit reminds me that i'm alive, instead
opalescent dreams recur in the land between
dreams no more but not yet
realities so what are they
then
possibilities, perhaps
i trace the emerald edges
of the torch between my teeth
dodging every outstretched extremity
as i gain speed i sink
as flowers spill
skulls and crowns
overflow and the earth is wet
with sweetness, slipping

59

They were surrounding me

When I smile, my teeth turn cold
And scream: “you cannot break free.”
The rain repeats the same pattern—
He copies the wind and refuses to
Shadow my ghosts, extinguish the fire.
The only respite is a shallow dream—

I swapped my body for haricot beans,
Hoping for a decade free of ice.

60

The Soul of the River

My elders always forbade me
from going down to the river.
Those inky swirls reminded me
of a witch’s mane; perhaps the bony arms
of her lice would emerge like driftwood.
They were afraid I would be swallowed
by the perfidious beast like a meal.
In fact, it was a river that housed
the drowned souls, alongside
the shoals of placid fish.
Every evening, I watched the dead
float away like Tibetan khadas,
discolored and yet unending.
They fell into the water
the way autumn sheds its pale scales,
one by one; yellow tears.
Then I saw her: the beast within the beast.
The eternal serpent, whose quivering
shook the Himalayas till avalanches
uprooted pines like thorns
from one’s flesh.
The thunderous dragon beckoned,
shaking her luminous mane.
I ignored the persistent cries from
my elders. The river called me out
and I embraced her. She wasn’t ghastly,
her face bore the pain of a thousand
corruptions unjustly levied.
Read more >

61

The white serpent

coiled itself
in parallelism
and defiance to
the murky curves
of the flowing river

his plans hijacked
by the lad in
saffron loin
while wails
the saffron clad lady

unbeknownst to
the hero and
anti-hero with
of course
the lady
man and fish
continue their
existential fight
the land turns green
waters too comply

62

The Music in Silence

Shipworms as marine bivalve molluscs live on that feed on the underwater wood. Once upon a time, they destroyed the wooden frets of guitars loaded on a cargo ship during the long voyage. The landed useless instruments would be decided to play the music in silence forever in containers at the harbor.

An otter was born in the well at the world's end and lives in underground man-made tunnel excavated by the tunnelling shield. The culverts in darkness, day and night, are surprisingly warm, silent. As she entrusts herself to the flow of groundwater, she can see a faint light in the distance. It is a port where water joins the ocean.

Water swirls in the cove. The otter suddenly listens to the music. The tone of guitars that lost their necks by shipworms. The broken nylon strings flutter in the sea breeze, become a sudden rain. The music in silence will fall on the well at the world's end.

63

Invitation

An alabaster serpent
scales shimmering
rose up through the depths
of a churning sea.

Two sisters of the same mother saw
saw the forked tail
ruffled crown
snapping jaw.
As the sea churned dark, wide, wild,
the serpent smiled,
stretched out a perfect paw
breathing fire so cool and white
it burned,
inviting them to fly.

Two sisters heard the serpent call
its pearl teeth agleam
and the skies so wild, so wide.

As the sea churned
One chose to ride.
One wondered why.

64

Deal

Dumbstruck by river’s flow,
the dark only a moment
she need navigate,
she let the watchers watch,

drew upon her urge
to plunge and scrape
lungs raw with breath, v a smudged dance

down to wildness,
mud-stuck, with just
the one idea left:
if that face would stay,

so would she.

65

Time Flies

When the red hibiscus flowers
bloomed in the sunshine,
you picked them,
put them in your hair,
your long soft fair hair,
and you were
the most beautiful person,
I had ever seen.

Then the hibiscus flowers faded,
as they always do.
They closed at sunset,
bloomed again at dawn,
just as the drugs
lit you up,
then cut you down.

I watched you sink.
I watched you suffer.
I watched myself lose you.
I still have nightmares of your descent.
Nothing I could do would halt it,
even if I’d realised death
was as inevitable as the night,
like the folding of the hibiscus flowers
at dusk,
and that the monsters who took you
would never pay,
for the way you died,

for the day you died.

66

hiti manga

              succour flows downhill, through valleys
           until it reaches the quotidian thirst
        and vanishes again into stony crevices
     grandma used to talk of water from the heavens
  in bhaktapur, where home is but a figment
     spouting from the mouth of the hiti manga
        crocodile-elephant-boar-monkey-fish-peacock
           the ancient guardian of ageing dhunge dhārā
              the journey must have been arduous, i reckon
           amidst the drawing of lines through the hills
        thus, there are no hiti mangas in lapchu
     only plain cast iron pipes in father’s village
  ferns’ plexus, summer relief in another tongue
     tales follow feet but live only through mouths
        no one speaks of hybrid monstrosity there
           succour should have flown in all directions
              but streams dry up, like mistranslated fables
           there are no hiti mangas in calcutta either
        only a few lion-headed taps in mother’s city
     remnants of foreign hands in foreign lands
  derelict history, ferrous like blood in mouth
     parched supplicants burble along mud banks
        but, tonight, i glide on the hiti manga
           over the hanumante, the rangeet, the hoogly
              across all the lands it forgot to inundate
                 succour flows patiently, in wild haste

67

Earth and her Sheshnaag

Assimilating the ocean of infinity
The mermaid drifts away
From the throes of the mundane society on a lengthy survey
It is midnight,
The ocean reposes
Replete with crepuscular light
Sea waves gambol, rollick high
She flutters in the watery sky

Her clear-eyed mount
A marine ophidian equine
The twirling, hissing Sheshnaag
She is the earth
Perched on the protective hood
Of the serpent monarch
Ensconsing in the water
In the darkness of the woods
Her companion in the villein ride
To free her from the bondage
That the multitudes
Have unleashed on her.
His venom that energises her
Drives her, stimulates her
To break open her sealed chamber
In the hesperian green streak,
A lopsided smile on a tilted face
Trying to conquer a breathing space
To begin surviving
Read more >

68

Solo serpentine

Two Homo sapiens
spot a solo serpent
snaking/slinking/
slipping/sinuating/
slithering
soundlessly
like something

biblical,
fictional,
mythological:
like the spiteful snake
possessed by Satan
in the Garden of Eden;
like the sinister
serpentine symbol
of Salazar Slytherin;
like the better or worse
half of the duo
of serpents entwining
the Staff of Hermes.

Two Homo sapiens
take turns
in the symbolic saddle
of a solo serpent
Read more >

69

Rain ritual

Tears glittering pearl like, on her pale cheeks,
Cheeks not yet kissed or held,
Held in her lily white hands a rose, as she walks,
Walks along the flower strewn path.
Path lit now by sister Sun, replacing the moon now abed
A bed most of the village folk,
Folklore demands this sacrifice
Sacrifice to save and bless
Bless and help in this time of drought,
Drought cracked land in need of rain,
Rain is promised by this ritual, avow the priestesses
Priestesses lead this solemn procession,
Procession that around the hill snakes,
Snakes with faces, revered for their power,
Power to help if their hunger is satisfied,
Satisfied they are, in this choice of prey.
Pray now maiden, that your end be swift,
Swift and nimble she mounts the beasts back,
Back into the murky depths they disappear
Disappear with an eerie splash,
Splash signifies that it is done.

70

I call her Medusa

I call her Medusa. She saves me. The coils sprout and threaten Poseidon, who used his pure gold teeth to strip me bare—he almost succeeded. He may be the patriarch of water, but not even he can swim with us. Jump? I can’t jump. I can’t escape her and I don’t want to. The world above, below, is no longer for me. I need to swim. Swim far away with her, away from him. Medusa and I, both victims—no more. We take possession of His sea.

***

I wake up. Two officers in the white room. One clipboard ready to take my statement. I see his lips moving, but I can’t hear anything. I touch my breasts, wanting to feel my orange silk blouse and in one piece. He tore that too.

I sit up and search for her, the sea, and now know I don’t have her protection. I have to relive last night.

When they ask me, who did this to you, I’m tempted to say Poseidon. I don’t. If I am going to swim Medusa’s waters, I have to speak.

I give them a name.

71

The Day I Knew I Cared for You

The day I knew I cared for you was also the day we got our serpent. Most other families in the area already had theirs, and with the summer almost upon us, we would need the extra help. The serpents were just one of the many gifts the Travelers from the New World would give us. They used them to get around, and proved much faster and could haul a lot more than a horse. So my father traded some of our crops for the beast. They are gentle enough, but need to be trained properly. That's when you came to help break the serpent. I would see you in the market, offering your help to other farmers who were having trouble adjusting to the new animal. You assured me it was okay to mount her, as she would be as gentle with me as I with her. I took hold of the beast, and pulled myself up just behind its head. In that moment I gripped the serpent's tentacles, to use as reins, and it did not take to me one bit! It defensively coiled and was preparing to spring itself into the air, and I with it! You began to speak in its tongue, which came as naturally to you as our language, and the beast relaxed out of its coil, and was back to its gentle ways. You and the beast had an understanding that was deeply serious, as you both understood one another. Seeing you bring the beast from fearful to peaceful struck a chord within me, and from then on, I hoped I would one day be cared for and understood in the same way.

72

Grandma’s Lore

As the mahout guides the elephant,
So did the mystic rein in the snake,
A thousand perfumed lotuses half in bloom
Fell to the bottom of the black lake.

The water nymphs pleaded with the mystic
To let their husband – the serpent king – live,
But the fish in the lake struggled against the venom,
And the mystic heeded both the orisons.

And lo, the thousand hoods of the King,
Melted into water, his eyes suffused with diffident light
Soft descended the glorious spring
And the lake glimmered dazzling bright.

The billowing pink scarves of the mystic
Purified the dank air,
The swirly waters now fresh and green
Hid the greatly gleeful nymphs.

The painter, brush in hand, painted this scene on fabric.
As she recalled more of the mythology that Grandma had told her while she was forlorn or sick,
The sanguineness of Grandma’s words had always created otherworldly magic.
Aureate paints and deft strokes could do Grandma’s passion no justice.

Read more >
73

long distance

hints of white noise line your voice as it travels through
the network of wireless connections that link us together
I imagine a conduit, a serpentine length of channel slithering
across continents, voyaging across an ocean or two
battling pirates, evading sirens and maelstroms
bringing algae, corals, and the sound of waves to my ears
you are not the easy breath that rose and sank
against my chest. your voice used to be an even tone
I could gauge its density, feel its texture
then time exploded into so many islands
each with its own plan of sustenance, dividing us into maps with
bespoke borderlines. you floated away on borrowed wings
you’ve become a fragment of soundwaves that reaches me
through a merciful serpent. I sit, prayerful, waiting.

74

Maniac

Released
I ride the white hot dragon
far above the black river
with its shoals of lost souls.
The heat of my fierce energies
incinerates your flimsy efforts
to pull me back into line
reel me in, take me down
and keep me safe at home.
Your red alert is out
and I see you waving
like a red flag warning me
not to go too far.
But from this height
no boundaries apply
nothing can stop
my expanding exultation
my riotous defiance
of slower measures
and scant joys. It grows
brighter than any
ordinary light, too delicious
to take in sips and nibbles,
demanding total consummation
until nothing’s left
but ash and cinders falling
into the dark water
waiting to take me back
into its cold embrace

75

Response to the Serpent Song

Ride me. Ride me. Ride me.
Your tail flicker urges me
up and out to where the ghosts
play and uncertainty is a sea
that might engulf me unless

Hold on. Hold on. Hold on.
You are strong. You are resilient.
It’s not what the serpent looks like,
it’s this energy of going, moving
hydra-headed, I can be multiples
and many, wave to friends and hear

We go together. Do not fear.
I decide to trust and in that trusting
ride the ride through the swirled sea
where ghost and friends come home
in memory.

76

Long Time Ago

Riding on the creature of the night
stirs my imagination
the chill the ancient dragon's tail
the time when unicorns hid around the ben
waiting to count to ten
ten clouds of white stars
one in each bell in the sky
ringing for the master
to ride in the wind and sky.

77

In the old days

the world, replete with life,
offered all kinds of marvels:
River gods rode serpents,
divine themselves and wedded
to the waters, serpentine.

Those days passed quickly,
passed away too soon,
as we turned in on ourselves,
dammed the river, built
our cities on its shores,

tainted those living waters.
Now we have only the myths,
a faint memory of the vitality
of waters, skies, and earth.

78

The Charge

“Please sit down, ladies. I believe Constable Perkins has offered you a cup of tea. Now, I’m afraid I need to ask you a few questions. Can you please confirm exactly where you were and what you were doing between the hours of midnight and 2.45am on the night of May the first?”

“Shall I go first, Gertrude?

“Of course. Go ahead, Muriel.”

“Well, officer, I hadn’t seen my old friend Gertrude here since before the first lockdown and as there was now a relaxation of the rules concerning gatherings, I suggested we go flenging with the splangoblegs on the river Glinge. She was absolutely thrilled at the idea, weren’t you Gertrude?”

“Absolutely thrilled, Muriel. Absolutely thrilled.”

“Well, as you may know, or indeed may not know, Inspector, splangoblegs are nocturnal beasts so naturally we were obliged to go flenging at night. These magnificent beasts are touchingly compliant and friendly and are delighted for homo sapiens to flenge on their silky coiled alabaster-white bodies for hours on end. They love to have their dashing pearl fronds tickled and sprangled as they plurt and crelge in the warm waters of the Glinge. Curiously, they do prefer that riders wear red or shades thereof. Gertrude wore a rather fetching short red skirt and a long pink scarf, didn’t you dear?”

“Yes I did, Muriel, and pink leaves of the muncrustiflorum tree fluttered from my hair.”

“That’s right, Gertrude, and I wore a long red dress that belonged to my great-aunt Gloriana, and both you and I made an attempt to dye our hair red which greatly pleased our hosts. Read more >

79

unperceived

another ivory creature standing by my beds
of grass, meadows i've tended to with care and desperation

i ask for clarity, in times like this,
i ask for charity, to be spared of doubt,
to be let free and unharmed from any riddle presented.

an old lover rides the creature,
pronounced virility of his shadows
his mounting and fearlessness, an exercise in hypnosis

he's hot and i wonder why he's back.
there is worry, perhaps seeking in his sight.
he searches, screams my name

again again, the echo    a battlecry
he cares for me, and i ask for –
i ask for his eyes to set on mine

but they pass through me, skim
and colour me background.

i stand unperceived in his presence,
frozen in rivers of words i never said
like i love yous and take me to meet your mother dear, let's face our fathers

and live it up Hard in paris and bangkok.
take that trip to inverness, uproot
a family tree of houseplants to a coastal place and invest in temperamental sofas.

Read more >
80

Mother’s yearnings

The one time when mother woke up,
yearned for fried fish-
(like her grandmother’s, the green
of the banana leaf wrapping and the yellow
of the bitter mustard and turmeric,
tucked into a pocket in the thatched roof
of their tiny hut, till she was back from school,
pulled by the smell of a hidden treasure)
and father took out his scooter from the shed,
roared he would get the daintiest freshwater fish
for her, no bones, only memories
of her childhood’s taste, I came to know
mothers have yearnings.

81

Afternoon Swim

My dad blew up the dragon
with air from the pump in the garage.
Whirr, click, whirr, click, whirr, click.
It puffed and curled and grew,
a plastic coil of brilliant white
unfurling like a ground cloud,
taller than me,
bigger than anything
in the neighborhood.

Its face filled last,
whiskers like tentacles
puffing out in a mane,
a look of surprise on its face
mirroring the look on mine.
Try it, Dad said. He tossed it,
light and floaty,
across the driveway.

I stepped back,
hands up, eyes shut,
but it found me anyway,
hot plastic stretched and ready.
It bent and bowed in the breeze,
wanting—needing—to enter the pool.
Hot sun reflected off the brilliant white.
Its eyes pleaded for a push.

Read more >
82

Quetzalcoatl

Not till the 4th visit to the hypnotherapist
did Quetzalcoatl's feathered head push
past my tonsils and whisper. My lips closed
but the echo rose from my nostrils.

That snake! I thought. That puppeteer,
the way he hides in the folds of my flesh.
Perhaps this time his neck will find the guillo-
tine of my teeth. The therapist didn’t blink.

History, she said
becomes mythology to live.

This was to be our last session so I un-
locked my jaw and asked no questions.
We climbed in mounting its column and slid
its hide past the red light of my backlit eyelids.
Our clothes rank now with the smell of wet dog.

Deeper! Commanded the thing gyrating,
its face contorting like a bear with its back to
the bark of a sitka.

Next, darkness in the space behind the sinus.
Then a flicker of phosphenes, faceless
bodies swimming as if tadpoles in the ruins
of a flooded quarry. The air loaded with
the thrum and gurgle of purple machinery.

Theatre! Nothing to see here. It bellowed.
Further!

Read more >
83

Moving On/Away

I was fine
slithering all over you
until you started talking
about other lands
to conquer.
Your restless eyes,
looking for winged dolphins
        and mermaids
told me it was time
to take myself to an island cave
where I shall string shells together
and sell them for a song.

And so,
I grew legs
and tried to summon a dragon
to forge my way ahead,
but,
they were rescuing other
damsels in disquiet.

I got a reptile for my troubles
and a parting shot from you.

Leave it to a snake
to be your exit pass
from paradise.

84

The Wrath of the gods

Cursed by the gods,
Beautiful and elegant lady,
Enchantress maiden,
Turned to a snake mistress,
She took pride in her beauty,
She walked with a voluminous
Skirt of ego,
She moved with the grace
Of a crowned princess,
She said none else has the beauty,
Of a million stars in the night sky,
Here she stands,
With ego crushed,
Pleading that the wizard,
Intercedes for her,
He rides on a giant flying lion-snake,
To seek the gods mercy,
And to make an atonement.

85

The Proposal

That’s when he last saw her, disappearing into the shadowy, navy swell. He reached for her, grasping at her fine pink cashmere scarf as the gust whipped it from her delicate neck. The wind, wild and furious stole her name from his lips as he screamed for her over and over again. The rousing froth rose like an enormous sea snake enveloping her, swallowing her whole as the fine wrap was whipped from her neck and flung back in his face like a token gesture.

It smelt of her, silken summer blossoms of frangipani and wild honey. Wrapped in her scarf, he closes his eyes and she beckons him to her beneath the waves, deep within the ocean belly. There he captures the sea snake, its thick neck curling and writhing, dragging its snarling features away from her. Far, far away, they fight till dawn. Till all that remains is the calm of the morning sea, the gulls on the breeze and the scent of her pale pink scarf.

86

WINTER NEVER TREATS ME BADLY

even though my words are dull, anaemic, always flaffing about like an amateur dragon dance, barely coming up to scratch; whereas you are feisty and stubborn, having no time for dragons, you ride the Ancient Serpent and declare independence. You’d rather have knowledge and freedom than security or fun. Eternity is too small a world and the Garden too twee, as you prefer words like dementia or ambiguity. However long the shadow of guilt, or the accusation of sin, you have no regret having listened to the Serpent. When December turns further north, you’d like to grow taller, to where the fingertips of your upstretched hands are pointing, so that the spine would be straightened and you’d be able to stand your ground. “We would no longer walk on all fours!” You declare, despite the eternal curse. Heading west out of Eden you followed the setting sun, knowing that beyond the darkest December there’ll of course be a new dawn to come. You don’t worry about him, it’s your daughter and your daughter’s daughter you consider. They’ll be the ones who continue what you have done. Although all my winter dreams are colourless, no more than line drawings or fuzzy memories, I can see you clearly ― your swaggering ride, the determination in your smile! And I know I’ll be able to learn your words, if I let my imagination go.

87

The Wild Dancers

The Snake tribe settled by the Jade river a hundred years ago. This river, with its gentle current, ran from distant mountains, snaking through the forest. These people lived in caves hidden behind trees, not far from the place where animals often came to drink. Mostly they were harmless; hunting only when hungry.

One morning, the forest citizens were woken by a horrible noise. They craned their necks and saw ten bulldozers flattening the forest. Trees fell. Birds screamed. Some strange creatures got off the giant machines. They stood on two legs, glanced around and pointed in different directions. Their mouths opened and strange voices came out. Monkeys and chimpanzees were so shocked that they turned and ran away. Tigers, leopards and other animals followed. Young wolves and cats were overcome by curiosity about how humans could produce fire, so they stayed to become pets.

The Snakes, one hundred members with fifty babies, stayed quietly in their caves, conferring about what to do. After observing the invaders for months, they decided to peel off their skin and copy human behaviour. Female Snakes were excellent weavers and made clothes decorated to look like their skin. Their husbands spent time hunting rats, rabbits, hares and pheasants. Snakes built houses from brick which felt cool like their caves. Humans built houses and planted wheat, potatoes and corn on the new land. They hunted deer and boar, then exchanged meat for the Snake people’s clothes.

After a good harvest, the humans organised a festival in the village square. They brought out five hundred pots of liquid made from wheat and lit a big fire. They sang and danced to the sound of drums made from cow skin, stone musical instruments taken from the Jade river and flutes made from bamboo. The Snake people, although invited to join the festival, stayed at home. Snake wives forbade their husbands as they were afraid this liquid had special effects.

Read more >
88

The Mass Psychosis

Are we really going to spend our days
pretending
as if there is not a rough beast lurking in the shadows,
biding his time until he can once again
slouch toward Washington to be reborn
in what will be the blaring blight of his Second Coming?
He threw his own supporters under the bus
in a last ditch effort to cheat his way to victory
yet his followers have not batted an eye
at the icy evilness obviously coursing through his veins.
They’re still too infatuated with the shiny hatred he sells.
Now is the time for the righteous and sane to rise.
Now is the time to cripple the monster as he lies in wait.
Now is the time to reconstruct and reconnect.

We can destroy the beast as he slumbers in a metaphysical womb.

89

Transformation

since a child when dancing
with the family mop
whilst sweep-washing the floor
Stiv had fantasised heaven within
the innocent ballroom of his adventurous brain
where the mop handle
became a huge slenderly slimy serpent
the mophead a smooth human snakelike skull
with a frenzied haircut of flopping waves
bouncing a merry jig
he the inspired jockey
balancing precariously yogically
on the limbless spiralling body
praying for dear life
while the reptile twisted onward and upward
bolting towards enlightenment

the spirit guide who had granted
Stiv this one and only wish on his path to nirvana
now stood by below quite perplexed
at the impetuous manifestation of this magical ritual
having insisted that enlightenment demanded
Stiv live out his childish imagination
to even see a glimmer of insightful light
awakening on the distant horizon

Read more >
90

If only the night had gone

We were by the river when she came,
flowing as rivers flow.
The long geist and the maiden,
punctual as deja vu.
Flowers burst in bloom
along their path.
And I knew it was time
or rather the end of it
but nothing I had read,
said this.
Apart from a dream,
apart from something,
shrugged away on the wind.
She sat expecting me
to climb aboard,
this creature from
who knows where.
Not beckoning
or wailing.
Neither she
nor it.
For the breeze did that
and the long geist huffed,
like a camel
at a manger.
I turned and it was me
I stood upon, alone,
now tailed,
but with no pen at hand.

Read more >
91

River/River

when mr sharma from gomti nagar sensed death approaching, he couldn’t stop scrolling whatsapp. when jawahar lal from hasanganj was found to be dimming, he was moved from his bed to the parking lot. for the ex-pracharak, the ground was primed with ganga jal, cow dung, barley, and salt. beena ji from ghaziabad died in her sleep, so seasoned family members found an excuse to bypass her staff. chinese diyas were lit, on saptami, in sadar bazaar.

sometimes, there is doubt whether death has struck, as in the case of our chowkidaar. a lump of petroleum jelly was placed on his brow, and when it didn’t melt, it was a sign that he had passed on. the sweeper walked around him once, clockwise, then hauled him to the hajipur ghat. according to the vedas, the aryans used to bury their dead. “why the hindus have to burn now?” the questioner got transferred to kondagaon.

a yogi held that the deceased, had they known pranayama, wouldn’t have needed oxygen cans. twitter promptly wished him a rectal cramp.

mool singh from varanasi was only two, so he was allowed to expire in his mother’s arms. (iti devi wants to be reborn as a sewer rat.)

dilip kumar from prayagraj had broken caste. he was fished out of the ganges, in a ricebag, near papa john’s. the road map for his aatma was patchy beyond r./i./p./, so he latched on to a cow’s tail and jumped into the vaitarna.

the river to hell is filled with sorrow, marrow, pain, and pus.
as per the bhagavata purana, if the ruler of the day neglects his duty, he gets sucked into its hungry mouth. no amount of clean-the-ganga can wash away this fate.

92

To The Rescue

Slick with sweat
And weighted by hubris
Riding one-armed
Lady Godiva style
Your stereotypical white stead
Serpentine and menacing
Flowers in your hair
Your souvenir scarf billowing
And all your ghosts
Swimming up the river behind you

“To the rescue!”
You cry.

Then you just cry
And cry
And cry.

“You should bring people to Jesus,”
Chris K. once told me in front of the class
Freshman year of high school.
He was a preacher’s son, after all.
Bradley M., his buddy,
Agreed wholeheartedly.
This was after I read a paper on Chechen rebels
That I was particularly proud of,
And I blinked at them,
Slightly confused.


Read more >
93

Poem That Ends with a Firing Squad

The fortune cookie read,
‘In new rivers swim many old ghosts.’
We took it as gospel—prophecy foretold.
We brought back the buried like any good god.

They snapped our olive branch
and said shoot all that moves,
but we never knew friends from our foes—
even when battle begun.

Dragon tails flicked around streets.
We heard the crunch of the skulls in their jaws.
Don’t tally the dead—or ask which side won.
In front of our firing squad you said,

“We’re deep in it now with no way to get out.”
That was the truth as we both raised our guns.
Always fighting, you and I—
never behind enemy lines.

94

Thuban

These green orbs + mermen
in iodised seaweed + disaster;
blossoms sinking, in ink, swirling –
a ghostly something curled + coiled; tangled vein;
worm; serpentine cord;
– woven + draped

Float is too gentle a word for these fleshly springs
in midnight apparition.

Under inaudible bubbling depths –
ears filled with saline waves –
tumbling, tumbling incredulity
+ mesmeric sickness
this cosmic toxicity warps;
a cloudless engine
(like riding moon’s breath).
This is addictive guesswork.

The sea is opal viscosity, it bleeds
petroleum for nautical souls, it bleeds
multiplicity of futures; is tumorous,
tumultuous – Earth lighter than coal.

95

The Shining

The trouble was that a fish was swallowing people, feet first, head first, every which way. Could be a giant pike, I’d heard. A catfish in the Volga River I could believe, but this was happening in the leafy purlieus of a small town in the Home Counties of England. I was loathe to believe it. Until it was someone I knew who disappeared after walking along the river. Then I saw the creature myself, rising up, and monstrous. Though also somehow fascinating.

I suppose that was it. The lure of the thing, a kind of shining. It might have drawn me in if I hadn’t turned away immediately and walked into town. The cafés had reopened after the fearful times, and I found a corner table from which I could look out onto the street in safely and without being observed. I ordered an espresso with extra hot water, also a small cake. The cake was green and tasted of a strangeness. I enquired about the ingredients but was told that this was a trade secret. It set me thinking, and my thoughts took me back to the river, where I had observed green tendrils, just below the surface of the water.

I suppose I should have resisted those thoughts, seen them for the deception they were. Realised that this creature was clever. But I did not. I trailed my left hand in the water and felt, at once, a soft mouth closing on my fingers, sucking at them, pulling my hand, my arm. If salvation had not come to me I would have been lost as the others. Instead, I fell back, released.


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THE FALLEN ANGELS

They are the fallen angels
That outlived Noah’s calamities,
Wrapped beneath hooded chimney waters
The worldly beings of the under world

Flipping the tidal waves
Breaking free like a placenta,
From the energies of the underworld
Sprang forth a Greek Olympic athlete
With a color paler than the stars,
Rocketing sky borne
His loin cloth swaying like comet,

Mounting a sea horse flying past soaring temperatures
Smooth like Jacob’s celestial ladder,
Ascending to the galaxies
For the highly premium milky star
To the one dearer than his life

She stood in fixation the bride of the banquet,
With an unmistakable lofty stare
In a red frock expressing the mood
Tilting over with curled jelly legs
Blowing a wish and a kissed
For both ends to meet at dusk
At the bachelor’s eve of the year

Her bridesmaid at the sea side
Gathering coral seaweeds for bouquet trimmings
The waddling of their splashing tails
Like harpers’ flute breaking the silence.

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Falkor’s Horizon

Fantasia is engulfed in misery and dread. The Nothing rips it apart at the seams, piece-by-piece. Atreyu rides atop Falkor—a wise, white, dog-faced luckdragon—and witnesses the ravages of grief. It is unbearable. Below, spirits flee the ensuing darkness. Above, an angry storm brews.

Bastian is caught in the middle and must choose: succumb or survive. The ocean, once a force that cleansed and renewed, cannot save him. He must lift his head and call for help. His voice trembles and breaks. He chokes on his words.

The rain begins and Falkor can see the end is nigh. The world eats itself. The edges walk themselves back. The universe no longer expands, it disbands—a hurt so deep that matter and energy can no longer hold their shape nor form. Grief transforms into rage.

He bites his tongue. Thunder crashes in the distance. He must speak up before it's too late. He swallows, takes a deep breath and look towards the sky. A silver serpent glistens. Pink birds chase. A woman with red hair extends her hand. Bastian, draped in orange, reaches out.

Atreyu beckons to Falkor to save one more soul. It's their last chance. The luckdragon descends towards the Earth. The image of a boy shivering in the downpour grows larger. Darkness spreads. Lightning devours.

A snake falls from the heavens. Bastian waits for its embrace. As it nears, he cries out and sounds bellows from his lungs. The creature circles the boy and lands, resting on the ocean shore. He looks into its deep brown eyes, full of knowing and recognition.

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Nagini, that may not comply

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?

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In Collaboration with

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"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...

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