Art, and Wit, and Changing

- First published in Kaleidotrope, 2021

I'm waiting for you.

Nine months, feeling you mature in my belly, convinced I am your enemy, waiting to take your revenge. You're set on it, I know, so much so that no amount of wine tainted with hellebore would flush you out. You've dug yourself in deep, bided your time. Clever boy.

The poems you compose with increasing frequency vibrate up my spine, heralding your victory to my very bones. Not long now.

Such verses; war songs, elegies, cryptic metamorphoses, composed in a language unfettered by sense; the language of chaos, known only to the unborn, glows warm in your embryonic cells, fuelling them, driving them, a great engine beyond flesh and blood.

What form will you take when you emerge, I wonder? Will you tear out of my belly with the claws of a wolf? Puncture my taut flesh like a crow popping an egg? Or burst from beneath me, a sea serpent, jaws gnashing as I sit in my bath, turning the water red as my hair used to be.

Though I have never been beautiful, these months I've carried you have robbed me of whatever looks I had. The hair that once enchanted you is now as coarse and colourless as unravelled jute. The crow's feet that were once but a tracing of silver wires around my eyes have sunk now into sunless valleys. My nails, once strong and sharp enough to prise a cockle from its shell, bitten bloody to the quick every night.

It's no great loss. As you, unfortunate witness, know too well, in the tangled art of love, I only ever succeeded through cunning.

My first love was handsome, young, sailing downstream on his coracle—a charmer, whose eyes I dazzled with sundry incantations; but as age weathered his looks and exposed his rotten frame to the cold sunlight, I realised that for all my cunning, I'd been just as young, and stupid.

The son I bore him, too, was as blunt as his father, nothing quick in him, nothing of me or my art—and you must know how much that stung me, now that you know how wonderful that art is. So I resolved to change my little one's fate, set my heart on gifting him the wit he lacked.

A spell to make one beautiful is easy to mutter. Beauty is gossamer thin; cunning is a far more difficult concoction. To brew cunning takes a year and a day, a panoply of herbs gathered at portentous moments, plucked from within fairy rings while walking widdershins, in odd numbers or paid for with a scattering of oak leaves, and most importantly (for what magic is without a sense of irony?), a fool to stir the broth, to make sure the fire never goes out.

I found you, my fool, not a spark of anything in your eyes, herding sheep on the hills above my cottage. I appeared before you, a goddess, let you run your fingers through my enchanted hair, soft as the inner thighs of the one girl who'd pitied you, let your rustic drawl compliment my body, and when I had you by the core of your being, I chained you by that desire to my cauldron; and fighting sleep and hunger, you stirred it, your arms aching, your muscles wasting, your hands becoming stumps of soot and splinters and blood, your back hunching like a harpy's; how unimaginably you suffered for my art.

You have paid me back in full, be assured of that, at least.

How I wish that, after finding you with your scorched fingers hot in your mouth, those three wayward drops of gramarye turning your eyes bright like a dull pool caught in sunlight, how I wish I had struck you down then, in that moment, before the magic gave you speed, gave you changing, gave you the wit to outwit me—as a fish, as a hare, as a sparrow; before each time I thought I had you and you were formless again, and reformed again. And each time you turned, I loved you a little more—don't you see? How your charm and chase enamoured me, set my pulse racing for the red flash of your fox's tail as I went for you, teeth flashing, as a hound; made me mad with hunger for the slick lithe form of your eel body as I, an otter-bitch, hunted you down; so that when finally you turned into a grain of wheat, I, a high-crested black hen, could not stop myself from consuming you, all mine at last, and I felt finally the warmth of you in my belly. But how quickly that warmth turned to dread. My love for you unuttered, was I, in your mind, still your captor, your adversary?

It starts. The birth pains squeeze me like a bellows, my tongue so wrapped up with screaming that no incantation can form to ease it. My fingers grasp the moss that dampens the floor of the cave I've chosen as your birthplace, my sepulchre. I go blind. I howl, expecting you to answer me with a roar before tearing me in two . . .

And come you do, but not as a wild animal, maw dripping gore; rather, bright-browed, cooing, baring no talons or teeth, nothing but blue eyes and little clasping hands; and I confess my love to you at last, though no longer the explosive sap-spitting love of a burning tree; now, it's an ache as deep and unfathomable as the waters of the bay where, after wrapping you hurriedly in a leather bag, I rush to take you.

Withered by my dread of you, I'll not last long; but the sea will nurse you, for now at least.

With the last of my magic, I charm the gulls to feed you; charm the wind to take you somewhere you'll be safe and loved, where your poems will be marvelled at, where you'll find life, and fashion it, with your extraordinary art, in ways undreamed of.

There is love in our parting. Your newborn cries tell me you understand.