Poems #11-13: “Nightcap,” “Wasted,” and “Whispers in the Night”

I know it’s been a couple of months since I posted anything, but there wasn’t any reason to give an update until now. Even so, this won’t be much of one. I spent the past few days proofreading what I had written for I Will Be King in the hopes that it will inspire me to write more. We’ll see if it works. I’ve written about a dozen poems since my last update, so I’m including a few of them in this post. I sorted through the poems I’ve written since 2014 in case I decide to publish second editions of my earlier collections, but I haven’t integrated them into those texts yet. There seems to be quite a bit up in the air at the moment, but at least I’m feeling like doing something again. Anyway, here are the poems:

Nightcap

Stay
or go?
Stay or go?
Stay? Go? Go? Stay?
A simple choice. Profound consequences.

© 2018, all rights reserved.

Wasted

Time
saved in
a beer bottle
is lost

forever.

© 2018, all rights reserved.

Whispers in the Night

When darkness falls hard and fast and deep,
I hear your muffled call slithering through my sleep
past the demons’ dreams etching scars upon my soul
to ease the wretched screams slipping past my firm control.

© 2018, all rights reserved.

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Story: “Portents”

Okay, here’s the story. Let me know if you like it.

Portents

“It is a sight to behold, My Liege,” Basil said. “A trophy well worthy of you.”

“Indeed,” Lord Arak said, his eyes surveying the small village of Hyd. It was far from impressive, but at least the bridge would give him easy access to the lands beyond. Still, something kept him from giving the order to attack. What was it?

Was it the wall? No. A low earth wall like that was child’s play for his trenching machine. It would plow through it in moments, and his men would follow in its wake.

Was it the villagers? They hid behind that wall like mice scurrying away from the sun. A rusty spear or dented helm poked at the sky here and there, but they wouldn’t last long under the force of his army’s swords. Those swords were forged from the strongest iron that could be wrought, and as sharp as the wizard could make them. From what he had seen so far, they were no match for his army. It was the largest army every raised: over three hundred well-armed, well-trained, experienced soldiers. It had cost him several fortunes to amass that army, but they had paid for themselves a dozen times over as village after village fell at their hands. This village would fall, too, once he gave the order. So why didn’t he?

A bare head poked out of its hole, and the image of a wolf spider leaping upon its prey filled his mind. It was a disturbing image, one that left him unsettled and uncertain. Were there more men lurking in the shadows than he had seen? Was he leading his men into a trap?

His brow furrowed, and his tongue slowly scraped the back of his teeth. He had squashed many wolf spiders in his time, both with his foot and his army. Even if every dwelling in the village held a dozen armed men, his army would defeat them. There would be casualties, of course, but there always were, but his men would prevail in the end, and the village and its treasures would be his.

His lips tightened as a ghost finger tickled the small of his back and crept slowly up his spine? It was not the first time he had had felt that touch, and it had cost him dearly before he had learned to trust it. Now….

“My Liege,” Drake prompted, “the men are in position.”

Lord Arak nodded, but he could not bring himself to give the order. There was something….

“Bring the soothsayer,” he abruptly ordered, turning on his heel and briskly striding to his tent. As he walked, he absorbed the sharp stench of sweat mixed with the sweet taste of oil, he let the lilting clink of the muffled joints in his armor smother the soft murmur of his soldiers. They were eager to act, and his uncertainty was beginning to settle on them. He couldn’t have that: an army that wavers was an army ripe for defeat.

Why am I hesitating?

The thought drummed through his ears unanswered until the soothsayer arrived. The soothsayer had wandered into his camp not long after he had begun his campaign, and the old man’s advice had ensured several victories. What he said now….

The soothsayer’s gnarled knuckles wrapped around his crooked staff like the talons of a falcon clutching its prey. His face, pale and wrinkled and draped with stringy white hair, lay hidden in the deep shadows of his robe’s hood. Not even those keen ice-blue eyes broke through that darkness, but he knew the old man was watching him. He stopped a few feet away, bowed slightly as if he wished to claim equal status but knew better than to do so, and his voice—raspy from age but firm with wisdom—whispered from the shadowed cowl. “My Liege?”

“Cast the stones, Soothsayer,” Lord Arak ordered. “Tell me of this battle.”

“My Liege,” the soothsayer answered, bowing once more. His hand slid into his sleeve like a snake recoiling to strike, and the ghostly fingers tightened their grip around the bones between his shoulders.

An ill omen comes. The thought came unbidden to him, but once made, he knew its truth with such certainty that he sucked in a sharp breath. His shoulders shuddered as if a burden had suddenly departed, and he fixed his eyes on the old man’s hand. The soothsayer held the stones loosely in his palm as he whispered the familiar incantation. A shimmering, fog-like gray-blue aura encircled each of the seven stones as the old man clenched his fist around them. His voice grew stronger as he beseeched the gods for knowledge of the upcoming battle, and his head tilted backward until the hood of his robe fell upon his shoulders. The long, straw-like white hair fanned out, and his ice-blue eyes rolled backward until only the whites showed. His nostrils flared as he sucked in a sharp breath and exhaled it past his few remaining teeth. A moment later, he tossed the stones in the air.

Lord Arak watched the stones tumbling through the air, their colors shifting from the gray-blue to—

He sucked in an aborted breath as the ill-fated red-black stones settled on the bare ground.

The irises of the soothsayer’s eyes slowly returned as he eased his head forward, pausing oh-so-briefly to gaze upon Lord Arak before hovering over the ill-fated stones. A bony finger straightened as he pointed at one of the stones and softly said, “The stones foretell betrayal, My Liege.”

“Betrayal!” Lord Arak harshly spat at the stones. “Who?!” he snapped, the uneasy feeling congealing into something tangible, into something he could direct at someone. His hand tightened on the hilt of his sword as he waited for the soothsayer to answer.

The soothsayer studied the stones for several seconds before slowly shaking his head. “They do not say, My Liege. They speak only of a betrayal on the horizon. Whether it be in this battle or the next, I cannot tell. I only know that if you do battle with this village, the betrayal will come.”

“If I do battle with it?” he repeated. “And if I don’t?”

The soothsayer’s hand gathered up the stones, their red-black glow shifting to gray-blue shimmer that squeezed out between his fingers. He tossed them lightly in the air, but when they landed, the red-black aura had returned. “The betrayal will but be forestalled,” he answered. “It will happen during the next battle or the one thereafter.”

A traitor, Lord Arak thought. Who can it be? His mind whirled. He couldn’t believe his men could betray him. They were loyal to him. They trusted him. They had followed him into battle time and again, and he had led them to victory after victory. He had rewarded them handsomely for their efforts, and they had praised him in return. They had no reason to betray him.

Who can it be?

He was still discarding one possibility after another when the soothsayer softly interrupted his thoughts. “My Liege?”

He looked sharply at the soothsayer and prompted, “Yes?”

“The betrayal is not a certainty,” the soothsayer answered. “There is a way to avoid it.”

Lord Arak’s eyes narrowed. “You know the one who will betray me?” he demanded, the first sharp tickling of the ghost’s fingers returning. “Tell me who it is!”

The soothsayer shook his head. “I cannot, My Liege,” he answered. “Knowing who will betray you will but hasten the betrayal; it will not prevent it.”

“You know the scoundrel’s name!” Lord Arak growled, moving swiftly forward to take hold of the old man’s bony shoulders, barely noticing the crunch of the stones beneath his feet. “Tell me!” he ordered, giving the old man a violent shake.

The soothsayer winced, and then rasped out his answer, “My Liege, if you insist upon continuing this ceaseless war, the betrayal will come. The only way to avoid it is to end this war today. If there are no more battles, there can be no betrayal.”

“Ha!” Lord Arak barked. “I cannot—I will not—do that!” What will my men do without war? Idleness will drive them to it, whether I send them into battle or not. Without me holding the reins—

The old man gulped, and a sigh shuddered through him. His body grew still, and his placid blue eyes looked into Lord Arak’s with such sad compassion that he released him. “I am sorry, My Liege,” the soothsayer told him, “it is the only way.”

Before Lord Arak could respond, a sudden, deep pain erupted in his chest, just below his ribcage. He reflexively stumbled backward, and his hand fell upon the haft of the dagger that had somehow punctured his armor. He looked down, and his eyes widened. My own dagger!

“Yes, My Liege,” the soothsayer sadly whispered. “I am your betrayer.”

Lord Arak dropped to his knees. “Why?” he managed to whisper.

“The stones,” the soothsayer softly said, moving closer but still staying just out of reach.

Lord Arak forced in another breath, trying desperately to fight back the blackness closing in around him. His eyes fixed on the soothsayer as he gasped, “What?”

“I cast them long ago,” the soothsayer told him as Lord Arak collapsed on his side. “They brought me to you. They told me you would wage endless war, and sorrow would follow in your wake. They told me a time would come when your destruction could be stopped, when I could stop you. That time is now.”

Lord Arak blinked for the last time, and as his eyelids slowly settled into place, the soothsayer leaned down to whisper in his ear, “You should have listened to me, My Liege. You had enough. Hyd—”

Enough? Lord Arak thought. There’s…

“—is—”

never…

“—my—”

enou…

“—home.”

 

© 2018, all rights reserved.

Poem #10: “Returnee”

It’s been awhile since my last writing update, but there wasn’t anything to report. I wasn’t doing any writing (poetry or fiction), and the poems I had written earlier in the year had nearly run out. I wasn’t even thinking about writing until about two weeks ago, and even then, there were only brief moments and a few ideas. I tried to follow up on one of those ideas about a week or so ago, but it just didn’t work. The character’s voice felt artificial and the writing was forced. It didn’t feel natural, and the story petered out. I tried again a few days later, and the same thing happened. I still like the idea, so I will probably go back to it at some point, but the story wasn’t ready to be written and I wasn’t ready to write it. Then, a couple of nights ago, I woke up with another idea and jotted down a few notes about it. It ruminated, and this morning I wrote the short story inspired by that idea. What’s encouraging is that, even though it didn’t flow as easily as I would like, it didn’t feel forced. Writing it reminded me of how it felt when I was writing short stories in the late 90’s and early 00’s. Most of the stories I wrote back then were short, idea-driven stories that could be completed in a few hours, and this one is like that. I might post it in a few days, after I revise and proofread it, but for now, here’s the only poem I have left from the ones I wrote earlier in the year:

Returnee

A change of pace;
.     an old routine;
An open mind;
.     the same old scene;
A brand new world
.     rearranged;
A new beginning
.     with familiar friends.

© 2018, all rights reserved.

Confirmation of the Fizzle….

An historic moment just happened in the NCAA tournament: a 16 seed beat a 1 seed for the first time in its history. What did CBS do? It kept it on the game it was broadcasting. In the past, they would have switched games for the last 2 minutes, but no more. I was even surprised when they showed part of the 16 vs 1 game during the halftime of the CBS game because they’ve done almost none of that recently. Well, except for the Auburn game because it’s Charles Barkley’s alma mater and they were razzing him about it being a close game. The halftime shows seem to be more about him than the games nowadays….

March Madness Is Fizzling Out

Okay, I still haven’t done anything significant with my writing. Eventually, I’ll break out of my funk and get back to it, but it is taking a lot longer than I thought it would. I seem to recall Theodore Sturgeon (or was it another famous author from that era?) taking 5 years off from writing at one point, but I don’t think it will be that long for me. Maybe when allergy season is over and I start walking again, I’ll get back into the writing mindset. We’ll find out in a few weeks.

In the meantime, “March Madness” is upon us, but it has fizzled out for me. Ever since CBS gave games to other networks, it has gotten less and less interesting. I don’t have cable, so it’s like watching a single game, usually one I don’t really care much about, and having commercial after commercial followed by the NBA commentators prattling on during halftime. They don’t even have the breakaways to other games like they used to have, and they don’t switch from a blowout to a game that is up for grabs because they are all on different networks. It used to be so exciting to watch the underdogs win, but now they don’t really even show in-game updates on them any more. There are more updates during regular season Saturday games than they have in the tournament, and that says a lot about how bad it’s getting. It’s all about the money, now, not the games, and it’s pretty much destroyed what used to be a very enjoyable sporting event. I remember watching the first week with anticipation, but now I’m not even paying much attention to it because they’ve taken away all the exciting parts. It’s not even really worth having on as background noise when the game that’s on doesn’t hold my interest.

Poem #9: “The Ovarian Lottery”

Sorry for the delay in posting this poem. I’ve been dealing with my Spring allergies and spent much of the past few days drowsing. I’m also running out of poems to post, since I haven’t written much of anything this year yet. Anyway, if you haven’t heard of “The Ovarian Lottery,” it’s a term coined by Warren Buffet. He says he “won the ovarian lottery” by being born when and where he was and with the mental abilities that made it possible for him to take advantage of it.

The Ovarian Lottery

Born this day, a screaming brat
A boy? A girl? It matters not.
whose life is but a spark of breath
that stretches forward into death.

Will this breath be first and last?
Will a dozen decades pass?
Will a century grow old
before its story has been told?

Will it live a life of joy?
Will its hatred overflow?
Will love come its merry way?
Will it be someone else’s slave?

Will it crave its daily bread?
Will it have a gilded bed?
Will it never suffer want?
Will it sleep beneath a cot?

Will it have a temperament
suited to its environment?
Will its full potential rise
to but a fraction of its size?

Where and when this brat was born
determines much of what will come;
the rest results from DNA
and all the things that come its way.

Some have luck and win it all.
Some have none and drown in toil.
But none of them is in control
of when and where they have been born.

© 2018, all rights reserved.

Poem #8: “Flashback”

Flashback

It is an old cardboard box,
dark brown and pitted by age,
topped by a dusty, misshapen lid.
I haven’t opened it—haven’t even
seen it—in decades, and now
it sits there accusing me of neglect.
It was an old fossil my mom
discovered in her garage,
and she wanted it gone.
“It’s yours,” she told me.
“Take it with you.”

I lift the lid and the ancient
glue gives way. A side flap
pops loose, but the other
three hold their shape.

A Dungeons and Dragons
boxed set stares up at me,
bringing back a few happy
memories of sword play
and magic spells. I lift it
and find the silver-gray
graduation cap, flattened
by time and long-forgotten.

I cringe and force back
the unpleasant memories.

Geek.
Nerd.
Muskrat.

Yes, that was what they
used to call me: Muskrat.

I can still feel the cold, hard
concrete floor of my father’s
fur shed; the piles of muskrats
stacked like cordwood next to
the skinning chair; the short
brown fur nestled in my palm;
the smell of tainted flesh and
clingy little balls of excrement
squeezed from the naked carcasses;
the blood caked on my fingers
after hours and hours of skinning….

I had buried that in the past
to collect dust and mildew,
and now it’s back again….

Why did I keep that cap?
Why do I still keep it?
And the graduation program?
The tassels?
The prom night catastrophe?
The diploma was the
only thing that mattered to me,
and I keep it with my college diplomas.

Then come the little knick-knacks:
Christmas ornaments from my grandma
that I never used, an ashtray I made
that looks like a rumpled fez, a package
of men’s handkerchiefs I never opened.
I never missed any of those,
but I still can’t throw them out.

A stack of letters to add to the
box of correspondence I’ve kept
in my closet for years.

Bank receipts I’ll have to shred,
even though I haven’t banked there
since the 1990s.

Nestled in among them
like a dagger from the past
is the Survival Knife.

I smile.
My dad bought it for me, and—
as gifts go—it was poorly chosen,
and I had forgotten about it.

He wanted me to be like him—
a hunter, a trapper, a man’s man—
but I wasn’t, and I never would be.
I was bound for college—eventually—
to become the “educated idiot”
he always dreaded I would be.

I never used that Survival Knife,
and I always thought it was a waste
of money, just like the ornaments
and handkerchiefs.

Until it saved my life.

It happened about six years
after I wore that cap and gown.
I have always struggled with depression,
and I was deeply entrenched in one at the time.
It was the first—and only—time I thought of suicide.

Oh, I had thought about
being dead before, about
who would miss me, about
who would be at my funeral,
but I never really wanted to die.

Until then.

I could not live
the way I was, and as
I lay there contemplating
how to kill myself, I thought
about that Survival Knife.

Immersed in that unfeeling stupor,
unable to lift my head from the pillow,
unable to move my arms and legs,
I smiled—weakly—and almost
laughed aloud.

The irony of ending my life
with a Survival Knife saved me.

If I could still laugh, I realized,
then I could still live.

Was that why
I buried that relic
in my mom’s garage,
hoping it would never be
rediscovered?

© 2018, all rights reserved.