October 28th, 2011


A poem for the Occupation perhaps

The Ballad of Death and the Maid

The black gig stopped outside the rich man's door.
Pulled by two horses, both with feathered plumes.
He pulled the curtains, sat in darkened rooms.
This was a summons he'd choose to ignore.

He knew that rich men sometimes go to Hell.
He'd robbed poor widows; if he could defraud
orphans, he did. And if he met the Lord
he'd look for ways to cheat his God as well.

Someone knocked on the door; he called his maid,
told her to tell the caller he was out.
He whispered to her. He was wont to shout.
She giggled at the fact he was afraid.

She knew the tall man at the door was Death.
He'd called upon her Granny when she died,
had been genteel, so much so Gran had cried.
And waited patient through each halting breath

until the rattle, when he took her hand.
Then left as if he led her to the dance.
The rich man thought he'd risk it, take a chance.
Went to his desk and took a pinch of sand

he used to blot, and threw it in Death's eyes.
Then grabbed her arms, the poor unknowing girl,
and spun her round three times. Her head a whirl,
he shoved her to Death's arms, who in surprise

seized her, half-blind, not knowing whom he'd got.
She fainted in his arms, heard the door slam
behind her, and heard Death say softly 'Damn
I have the wrong one. Can't imagine what

I'll do with her.' She said, 'take me away,
kind Death, sweet Death. I'll clean your house instead.
Groped and unpaid, I've wished that I was dead
a hundred times. I'd lie in bed and pray

someone would take me from that bad man's house.
I'll hone your scythe, and wipe it free of rust.
Polish your floors and tables. I will dust
your ornaments. I'm quiet as a mouse

you'll hardly know I'm there.' Death stroked her brow.
Like Grandma did. 'My dear, it's not your hour.
Much as I'd love to have you. I have power
but only when you die. Which is not now.

I came to take your master. It's his time.'
'Are you in trouble if he doesn't come?'
'No, truly, sweet girl. In the endless sum
of death and birth, though it would be a crime

to let a bad man live, he's not worth much.
Still, it's a shame. I'd like to take his life'
'Lord Death,' she said, 'I'll stab him with a knife,
beat out his brains'. She felt the gentle touch

of bony lips on hers. 'Give him a kiss
and I'll take it from there.' She had a key
to the coal cellar door, so quietly
she turned it in the lock, more like a hiss

of well-oiled gears than any louder sound.
She kicked her boots off, padded up the stair.
For black dust on the rugs she gave no care.
Master might mind – he would not be around.

He saw her and he squealed. 'Are you some ghost?'
'No sir, I'm back.' 'How did you get away?'
'Death said your debts were not for me to pay.'
'Insolent girl, now fetch me tea and toast.

No, don't. Come here.' He fumbled at her arse
And pulled her face to his. His sweaty lips
forced hers. His eyes went dark as an eclipse
and with dark glee she watched his spirit pass.

She threw the curtains wide, let in some air,
watched Death's coach drive away with him inside.
And stared down at his corpse in angry pride
spat in his face and left him lying there.

She took his rings off, made the oven hot,
melted them for the pay that she was owed.
And when she left, she had a heavy load,
her pack was laden with the things she'd got.

Rich men beware. Death waits outside your hall
And dying is the one thing you can't pay
the poor to do for you. And if they say,
they will, they won't. Because they hate you all.

And I finally finished one of the ballads that's been sitting around half-done for weeks

The Ballad of the Diamonds

The ashes in the grate blew to the floor
and caught some twists of paper lying near.
The cook had curled her hair; it cost her dear.
She died ablaze, still groping for the door.

And so the house burned; the young kitchen maid
raised the alarm, and got the twins outside.
Their governess was drunk on gin; she died
because she would not jump, was too afraid.

She helped the mistress get her lapdogs out
although they bit in panic, soiled her dress.
By now the smoke was thick; she had to guess
which way to go. She heard the butler shout

and pulled him by his coat. He had the plate
was weighed down by it, so she shared the load
and piled the silver out there in the road.
She went back for the footmen, was too late.

The master came home drunk to find a shell
where there had been a mansion fine and tall.
His wife and children, nothing else at all,
except the dogs. He damned the maid to hell

for trying to save servants. 'Where's my gold?'
he shouted. Thieves had taken all the plate.
Perhaps the butler. So she met her fate.
In three weeks she was chained up in the hold

of a three master, bound for Diemens Land;
lucky she was not hanged, the judge had said.
Her master raved in court, wanted her dead,
wanted her whipped or branded in the hand.

She'd saved his family – he did not care.
He never liked his wife - if she had burned
there was a rich heiress for whom he yearned.
If the twins died, he'd sire another heir.

He locked his wife up; kept her from the court
because she would have spoken for the maid.
He cut the dogs' long tails off with a blade.
To show his wife how lives could be cut short.

And might still hang them. She just sat and wept.
The maid's thin wrists slipped easy from her chains
with spit and soup-grease. Stretching felt the pains
of long confinement. Quietly she crept

out of the hold and out onto the deck
un-noticed. To the east, she saw some land
and clambered down a rope, hand over hand.
Later that week, the ship became a wreck

and all hands drowned. She made her way ashore.
And found small brown men sitting at a fire.
One of them seized her wrist, but his desire
soon died. She twisted, held the young man's paw

and her right arm direct into the flame
and held it for a moment. Won respect
for fierceness. Found that these things will protect
you always – wit, and anger, and good name.

These she had. And her dress, salt-stained and torn,
the wooden box she kept her bible in
that went to pulp. She learned it was no sin
to strut round naked as when she was born.

They taught their language, though the sort of click
they made she could not learn. She walked their way
helped carry children, gather up the clay
they baked for pots, cut food up, nurse the sick.

And in the clay she found some little rocks.
The stones were hard as anything to touch.
When her companions took her to the Dutch,
she took lots with her in the little box

A Dutchman hired her. She would sweep his floor
and cook his meals and scrub his clothes with soap.
For ten months she endured the aching hope
that he'd not try and turn her to his whore.

Instead, an honest courtship from the man.
This was not what she wanted from her life
to be some boring merchant's servant wife
was not at all convenient to her plan.

She thanked him, claimed a husband in her past,
that she'd return to when she earned her fare.
He blushed and said that he would help her there
the least that he could do. He found a fast

tea-cutter racing past put her aboard
and said farewell. Ashore in Amsterdam
she bought the local pea soup made with ham
and took the stones that others had ignored

into the ghetto where she said she knew
what she did not, but nonetheless had guessed.
She showed them ten small stones, and hid the rest.
The jeweller hemmed and hawed, but told her true.

He cut one stone with facets – it shone clear
No flaw at all. She learned to trust the man
He cut more stones. She told him of her plan.
He liked her justice. Loved her lack of fear.

Priests burned his wife in Spain, and stole his son
to geld to sing the high notes in their choir.
He'd had the judges killed. 'There's men for hire'
He told her. 'They will slaughter anyone

And won't cost more than you can now afford.'
She laughed and said, my own small vicious hand
will kill. The jeweller did not understand
but helped her plan the murder of the Lord.

She learned to be a lady, a Countess,
from Italy. She learned to use a fan,
learned swordplay, pistols. And she killed the man.
Accomplished all she'd planned. Well, more or less.

She spent the diamonds each one, stone by stone.
Bought entry to his club, and with one card
beggared the man. Unmasked, and slapped him hard.
Duelled with him, stuck him, left the field alone.

She'd thought to kill, then hang. Her master's wife
swore it was self-defense against a rape.
'We're even now, for when you helped me 'scape
the fire and I betrayed you. Life for life.

My home is yours. This kindness comes quite late,
I know; the offer does include myself.
It doesn't matter that you've spent your wealth
On vengeance – for 'twas me who stole the plate'