She has some small skill with these things
making balm, potions, cooking almost—
a dream of cooking. As when we were children
making mud pies and jelly from yew berries;
food we left for the birds, used to poison
the gamekeeper’s needle-jawed dog.
But she could make anything grow or fail:
cow, crops, child. Dousing with a whale bone
on Bible Bottom she lifted a spring;
clear water from the dry chalk slope.
They said when the frozen fields caught fire
it was her weird song lit the spark.
They said she could turn the wind like a knife.
That they saw her barefoot in the Hollow Lane
running a gauntlet of nettle and thorn
to meet the tinker, her lover.
They said her name, spoken aloud, was a shaft
of cold air that sliced open a man’s throat
so he must swallow her down like a draught.
Hedge-witch, slut, shrew:
the girl the priest called brazen; the girl
the school-master kept back to parse
her dark nipples, rub his smooth face
in the musk of her armpits, climb
up through the froth of mud-laced petticoats
to mouth and mumble at the source
of her: cupio, comedo, futuo, ustulo.
What they dreamt and what is—
these things are fraught as the strip
of common ground that bleeds
the village into the downs.
Where the shepherd says he saw her
flying amidst a flock of fieldfare, the flash
of white from their wings bedazzling
him even now as fireside he tells the tale:
how he found her again at Saxon’s Cross
riding the chalk road like a wild mare,
skirt hitched up her skinny legs, eyes pinched
shut, clamouring in some devil’s tongue.
Tells how he put his arms around her,
shouted her name into the bitter wind
and held fast as she was changed.
First to a fiery branch, then a block of ice,
a double-edged blade, a roebuck,
a viper, a falcon, a burning coal.
Tells how his heart failed.
How he dropped her, watched her race
up the scree, a flint-grey hare
long ears laid across her back
Not mine, he said.
Not any man’s.
North has deep pockets
felt boots, a flash silk scarf.
North is a pest and
stings like a horsefly.
North has a tongue of flame
and knobby, crafting fingers.
North is round
as a malachite egg.
North is a blue note leaning
on the glottalic creak of river-ice.
North is mouthing bone
sound from a Jew’s harp.
North tattles like a samovar
her tall-tales steaming.
North is a hut, its eaves
shaggy with lichen.
North is a sentry—
Baba Yaga’s black goose.
North bangs hard
on a horse-skin drum.
North is a frost-bronzed
The Frog Prince
On rainy nights she dances on the puddled road,
squashing worms and slugs and snails beneath
the crêpe soles of her black school shoes.
You’ll find her deaf and mute as a toadstool.
But give her a hammer. Let her loose in the hen house.
Tap, tap, she will crack and smash those little worlds.
She’s trouble. Tickling the purple rain clouds ’til
they let down their long winding sheets of water,
exceeding the rivers and flooding the town.
Gnarly and bored, she sets off a string of Black Cat
firecrackers in the tin tabernacle at the end of the lane.
Sits on the bridge smoking Silk Cuts, eating toffee crumble.
The prince, when he finally shows, is a damp squib
of a boy from the wrong side of Tunbridge Wells.
His sodden grey cardigan droops to his knees.
But he sings sharp and apple-green as a piccolo,
folds himself like origami to squeeze through her window,
trails honeysuckle and patchouli. She takes his hand.
Rebecca Hurst is a doctoral student at the University of Manchester where she writes poetry and researches Soviet fairy tales. Her work has appeared in various magazines including The Wild Hunt, Magma Poetry, and The Next Review. Her chamber opera Isabella, written with the composer Oliver Leith, premiered in London in 2015. Forthcoming work includes the libretto of a new opera written in collaboration with Helgi Rafn Ingvarsson and Euphonia Opera.