Familiar

 

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

eyes moon-bright.

 

Not mine, he said.

Not any man’s.

 

 

 

Sibir’/Сибирь

 

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

wood pile.

 

North sh-shouts

your name.

 

 

 

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.