BIRD WOMAN (by Ruth Marshall)

When will you fly?

I sit beside you,
bird-woman,
and touch your little-claw hand.
You turn,
your eyes still beautiful,
and gaze at something I cannot see.
Stick legs lead you
on a hollow-boned stumble
down the ward.
Your bird-heart races.
You watch the sky
and clash against the glass.
Come, let me hold you.
Rest in my cupped hands
till your tiny heart is still.
Bird-mother,
Helen,
your body has adapted to the air.
When will you fly?

THE THIRD WITCH by Rebecca Reisert (Review)

Scotland, mid-11th Century

Impatience rises in me like a bloody tide. ‘Should I seek Him out on the battlefield? Or must I go to His castle?’
Mad Helga only chuckles. With one thick fingernail she flicks a bone into its place.
‘You daft old bat,’ I say, ‘speak plainly!’
Mad Helga holds up a tiny bone. The lower part dangles, broken. ‘See what your impatience has wrought? Once broken, never fully mended.’
‘I shall break your bones, old woman, if you do not answer me.’
Mad helga’s eye continues to twinkle. With the dangling end of the bone she draws a faint pattern in the ashes on the hearth.
‘Heed well, Gilly. These curls here, this is our own wood, Birnam.’ Her voice is suddenly as sane as a tax collector’s. ‘For two days you will travel through it. Until midday on the first day, travel due north. Then turn west for a day and a half. Partway through the morning of the third day, you must leave the wood and take to the road that folk call Old Grapius Road. Follow that road through the hills and mountains. ‘Twill not be an easy journey through the mountains, girl, but the road will lead you through the best passes. Finally you will come to a long silver loch. Travel north past its northernmost shore till you come at last to the castle of Inverness, his northern castle, perched high on a ridge above the firth where he can guard against attack from the loch, river or sea.’
I study the map of ashes, tracing its outlines onto my heart and searing its curves into my memory. Finally I look up. ‘Helga, I do not remember much of castles and their ways.How shall I gain admittance to the castle?’
Mad Helga’s hands thrust out suddenly, spilling the bones into the ashes. Her fingers flash about till the map is erased and the bones soiled and buried in the ashes. ‘Tis your revenge, not mine, lass. I neither know nor care whether you be admitted to his castle or no.’ She begins to rock back and forth, singing, ‘Greymalkin shall not stalk your rest, nor Ulfling seize your – ‘
I close my fingers around her wrists. ‘Stay with me, Mad Helga, just a moment more. Tell me, I beg you, once I gain admittance to the castle, what must I take to bring to you?’
For a long time, Mad Helga is silent. She sits so still that I snake my thumb to the underside of her wrist and press to feel the throb of her pulse to make certain she is still alive.
Then she says, ‘Bring me three pieces of His heart.’

This novel, which is full of medieval magic and mysticism (witchcraft, foreseeing the future, the “Old Ones” speaking through one of the witches) and of medieval outsiders (witches, scavengers gleaning the dead on the battle-field, a backward boy whose mother has been hanged as a witch) is the story of the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who, it turns out, were actually named Nettle, Mad Helga and Gillyflower.

Nettle is middle-aged, a herbalist, and blessed with the Sight; and not only that, but on occasion the “Old Ones” speak through her:

Suddenly, […] the room fills with a wave of smell, an odour both sweet and foul, like the stench of a body six days dead. I cover my nose with my hand but the smell is just as strong. I have to fight against gagging. What is happening? I don’t understand it. I look to Nettle and I see that her lips are moving. Then I hear a voice coming out of her mouth, but it is not her voice. It is a voice I have never heard before, a voice that is gnarled and twisted and dry like the root of an ancient oak.
‘You will find what you seek two leagues from Forres.

Mad Helga is the crone of the trio, old, and “as bald as a new-laid egg”. She is also, as her name implies, quite mad (or is that only when the wind blows from the north-north-west?); frequently she speaks in verse (“A drum, a drum, Macbeth doth come”), but when she does so the words she speaks are words of power: they take effect – or at least, come true.

And finally, with them in their hut on the edge of the great forest lives Gillyflower, known as Gilly. She was taken in by them seven years earlier when she was – what? seven? – and her home was destroyed and her warrior father killed by Macbeth. At the time the story opens, she is fourteen and and “grown up” and though now she is dressed in rags and living in a hovel, she still remembers what her life was like when she was a child (“I had forgotten how free and glorious it feels to fly across the countryside when you’re perched atop a horse”), and she seeks to avenge her father and herself. This book is the tale of that revenge.

It is beautifully written, and often un-put-downable and when you have read it you will know all three of them as well as (better than, in most cases) you know your family and friends. In a good, a positive, sense, the play will never be the same again: it adds to the play.

Rebecca Reisert’s next novel lets us in on the hitherto well-kept secrets of another mysterious Shakespeare character: Ophelia. I’ll post a brief review of that one tomorrow.

DONNA ELVIRA speaks (from THE DON JUAN TRIPTYCH) (by John Heath-Stubbs)

But once, in the market-place,
I peered between the curtains of my litter
And saw a gypsy-girl dancing among the crowd;
Flaunting like a flower her brown body, she fixed her eyes –
Eye of a gypsy, eye of a wolf –
Upon the man she wanted, and drew him forward,
Swaying her hips and arms, and her young breasts,
To the rhythm of castanets and clapping hands;
She seemed as ancient
As a goddess painted on a cave’s flat wall
In red and yellow ochre; and beckoned him –
A tall young mule-driver – to love as to destruction.
Then my blood cried that I was one with her,
And one with the shifting moon, and the harsh sea,
And the hungry grave, the last of all your lovers.

DONKEYHOOD (by Moira Clark)

When I first decided to become a donkey
it seemed so natural.
I’d actually been one for years
only no one had noticed;
not even my husband.

It was a slow change –
didn’t want to alarm the children –
a slight growth of facial hair
(well, I was post-menopause)
and toes that glued hoof-like together
(unseen in slippers, shoes, and certainly my most
unattractive feature, so no one bothered to look).

When my voice became hoarse I feigned a cold
but heard the change, was resigned to a laughterless life.
‘Mum’s depressed again,’ the children said
but when they were all out having fun,
I’d laugh for all I was worth, marvel at the heehaw sounds.

My secret was uncovered when I’d forgotten
to push my tasselled tail out of sight
but by then there were nodules of ears
growing from my scalp and I knew
it was only a matter of time.

‘I’m a donkey,’ I admitted casually,
one day over a bowl of carrots,
when I couldn’t stand upright any more.
You should have heard their laughter
until I reminded them of genetic inheritance
and the wonderful world of DNA …

ARGUING WITH GOD (by Elizabeth Bartlett)

I’m going to meet Him
arguing madly
and behaving badly,
scratching and biting

I’m not going to lie
down like a dog and die.
I’m going to gird my loins
in a Biblical way
and have them say
I went out fighting.

I’m going to write letters
to my elders and betters.
I’m going to protest loudly
to all who can hear
that what they all fear
is there in the writing.

I’m going to tell them
that it’s not an Amen,
but a Hallelujah instead.
Don’t make me swear
on the book or wear
a shroud for igniting.

I’m not going to admit
to the shame of it.
I’m going to meet Him
arguing madly
and behaving badly,
scratching and biting

HELL IS A LONELY PLACE (by Charles Bukowski)

he was 65, his wife was 66, had
Alzheimer’s disease.

he had cancer of the
mouth.
there were
operations, radiation
treatments
which decayed the bones in his
jaw
which then had to be
wired.

daily he put his wife in
rubber diapers
like a
baby.

unable to drive in his
condition
he had to take a taxi to
the medical
center,
had difficulty speaking,
had to
write the directions
down.

on his last visit
they informed him
there would be another
operation: a bit more
left
cheek and a bit more
tongue.

when he returned
he changed his wife’s
diapers
put on the tv
dinners, watched the
evening news
then went to the bedroom, got the
gun, put it to her
temple, fired.

she fell to the
left, he sat upon the
couch
put the gun into his
mouth, pulled the
trigger.

the shots didn’t arouse
the neighbors.

later
the burning tv dinners
did.

somebody arrived, pushed
the door open, saw
it.

soon
the police arrived and
went through their
routine, found
some items:

a closed savings
account and
a checkbook with a
balance of
$1.14
suicide, they
deduced.

in three weeks
there were two
new tenants:
a computer engineer
named
Ross
and his wife
Anatana
who studied
ballet.

they looked like another
upwardly mobile
pair.

TOMCAT (by James Baxter)

This tomcat cuts across the
zones of the respectable
through fences, walls, following
other routes, his own. I see
the sad whiskered skull-mouth fall
wide, complainingly, asking

to be picked up and fed, when
I thump up the steps through bush
at 4 p.m. He has no
dignity, thank God! has grown
older, scruffier, the ash-
black coat sporting one or two

flowers like round stars, badges
of bouts and fights. The snake head
is seamed on top with rough scars:
old Samurai! He lodges
in cellars, and the tight furred
scrotum drives him into wars

as if mad, yet tumbling on
the rug looks female, Turkish-
trousered. His bagpipe shriek at
sluggish dawn dragged me out in
pyjamas to comb the bush
(he being under the vet

for septic bites): the old fool
stood, body hard as a board,
heart thudding, hair on end, at
the house corner, terrible,
yelling at something. They said,
‘Get him doctored.’ I think not.