A new ballad for me to read at the Dyke March Benefit on Friday
THE BALLAD OF THE ROARING GIRL AND THE PIRATE QUEEN
She swaggered down the street – her bright red boots
had hobnails and steel toes. Her fingers wore
rings sharpened to take eyes. She often swore
great oaths, guffawed aloud in shrieks and hoots.
Would work for hire, keep peace inside an inn
after her fashion. Which was often loud.
Men took advantage sometimes in a crowd
would tug a petticoat, stick fingers in
She'd be behind them. Had a hawk's sharp eye
for such. Would break the fingers, and the arm.
Would smile so sweetly at them. She had charm.
The men she maimed would look at her and sigh
That she was not for them. Oh, she would drink
alongside men, and slap them on the back
in friendship, though their ribs would often crack.
Then she'd grow sad, for she would often think
of her best friend, another Irish lass
stolen by corsairs from high Barbary.
Her tears were salt as the dividing sea.
She swore no matter all the years that pass
like sand that blows, she never would forget
her friend. Would find her somehow on a shore
so far away. If they'd made her a whore
It would not matter. And her cheeks grew wet
She thought of wrongs men had done to her friend.
She could not find and punish. Would not mope
would punish men who'd beat, or rape, or grope,
the women of the town. Some poet penned
her story as a chapbook, which she sold
out on streetcorners, signed it with her mark
as she'd been taught. One day she would embark
for Barbary, buy passage with her gold
pay for each twisted arm, each broken head
and sale of books beside. She only drank
the beer that people bought her. And she stank
rather than pay the bathhouse. She ate bread
and rarely meat. She lived a life of thrift
wore what would wear well, slept on stable straw.
Had secret wealth saved, lived among the poor.
Could buy silk nightgowns, wore a half-torn shift.
And all for love. And one day she set sail
with a sea captain who had earned her trust
yet coveted her gold. He sprinkled dust
ground down from poppy in the glass of ale
He planned to sell her. Down in Timbuctoo
they'd make her fence blind wrestlers, or an ape
that strangled. Wrapped in chains, make her escape
from swift fierce cheetahs in the emir's zoo.
Shackled and bound she lay among the stench
of undrained bilge. Rats splashed amid the mess.
Twas the betrayal irked her. Her distress
Heightened by feeling she'd let down the wench
she yearned for. Then she heard a cannonade
and then the noise of swordplay on the deck.
She feared the fight would leave the ship a wreck
and she would drown who had first been betrayed.
But then an open hatch. A shaft of light.
Corsairs came down and freed her from her chains
and led her to the deck. She saw the brains
of her betrayer, skull smashed in the fight,
and spat in his dead face. Though now a slave
she'd act as a free woman, rather die
than crawl to any master, would not lie
or feign submission. Then dame Fortune gave
her wheel a turn. She'd thought the corsair's lord
would be some bearded captain, tall and scarred,
harsh in his punishments, vindictive, hard.
But that was not at all who came aboard.
Led by her men, bedecked with rings and lace.
Her silver swordbelt bright with filagree,
emerald garters tied around each knee
the thinnest veil of silk around her face.
She met their queen. Who said 'who is this rogue,
this roaring girl, this harridan, so bold
and fierce and shameless, yet betrayed and sold.'
Her heart leaped, for she recognized the brogue
of her home village. 'Bold I am, yet true.
To her I love, whom corsairs stole from me
I fought for years, bought passage cross the sea
and tis all even, now I'm brought to you.'
She laughed for glee and kissed the pirate queen
smack on the lips, pushing aside her veil.
And soon the pair of them were under sail
happy as girls in love have ever been