All night I could hear you muttering, old woman,
down in the street. This morning you’re still there,
crablike, clutching the ground then scuttling sideways,
face crumpled up with malice or with fear,
hair that could once have been as blonde as mine,
skin a curdled grey like wisps of cloud,
like the mist that follows you. You leave
puddles and grass unruffled by your tread,
walk straight through cars as if they just aren’t there.
I see you stoop and gather into a sack
sticks or leaves or something you’ve grubbed up
from under the dog-eared skin of chewed tarmac,
as if you’re harvesting something I can’t see
that doesn’t belong in this street, or this century—
And what have you done to my voice? All the kind things
I try to say are strangled, what comes out
is a gasp, a croak, a tide of bitterness
rising, black wings flapping in my throat—
Helplessly I watch your bony fingers
scoop the flaming scarlet, flaring gold
into your sack; you won’t be satisfied
till colours die and winter comes to scold
the street into a sulky monochrome.
My stomach’s churning, frostburn scalds my heart.
You raise your head, your hooded eyes meet mine.
I keep my teeth clenched and my windows shut.
Stay out, let the wind shred you, let the rain
dissolve all trace of you. You can’t come in.
Someone is knocking my door. It isn’t you
—a young man stands there shyly, with a tray
of things to sell for Christmas. Icons, cards,
Russian dolls. He holds them out to me,
their little shawls and headscarves and pinched faces
bright with stained glass colours. I can’t hear
you muttering any more. A stealthy silence
as if you really have dissolved in air
and now the wet leaf woodsmoke tang’s infected
with you. A mist of germs. I gulp and choke
as particles of you lodge in my lungs,
my ribs are swelling, threatening to break,
as if each wooden doll’s sour history
throbs inside another inside me.
In every doll, five hearts, five brains, five stomachs.
I want to buy them all and set them free.
Uncup each one, release their stifled dreams
and set them out along the hedge, empty
as skulls. Brittle and bleached. When darkness comes,
firelight will flicker in them. They are bowls
lit with an eerie glow, drawing like moths
each of your wistful and unfinished souls.
Gazing through the flames, I watch your shadow
slink out of me and float away in the dark.
You are the witch of legend, Baba Yaga,
seeking your magic horsemen: one in black,
one scarlet, one who has no colour, lost
in drifts of moonlight, bonelight, daylight, dust.