Rhysling Award Nominee “Long Poem”
A Great Clerk of Necromancy
Catherynne M. Valente
Look: I am eight
I look up
from a vast recliner kingdom
upholstered in 1970s off–gold
I look up
from a paperback
I shouldn’t be reading
a room of fizzpopping wine glasses
what cunt means.
Salem’s Lot, or maybe Cujo.
Picture the artist as a young spy
from the adult world
to childhood’s impoverished nation — who,
needs them more.
My father put his hands
Shut the book like a door. Took it back
to the high–security vaults of Grownupville.
Judgment from on high
in red and bright
You’re not ready for books like this. It’s ok
the dog dies at the end.
This has been a test of the emergency preparedness system,
only a test.
In case of a real emergency, the following
Do not seek explanations
from anyone bigger than you.
If you admit you do not know,
they will take what you do not know away
and you’ll never find out what cunt means.
For my next incursion
into their stern and spectacled DMZ
I slipped a copy of Malory under my shirt
are the most grown–up.
I puzzled it like a code
would mean myself.
Holed up in a cedar–crook
down by the summer pond
where horses grazed and a rope swing
like a noose
beat the July air
There Morgan le Fay became a great clerk of necromancy.
Do not ask what necromancy means,
cried my little heart!
It is a word like a cunt,
to say out loud.
who puts tomatoes and ice and lemons
in a bag at the grocery store.
That’s a clerk.
And anything with — mancy in it means magic.
I looked up
into the off–gold afternoon. And thus
I began my secret mission. To catch
the checkout girl
The way her fingers moved on the cashier keys
her pierced nose
her sure stacking:
eggs on the bottom
green onions and garlic on top
her have a nice day now
her red apron.
These were her spells.
She wore that apron
and nothing else
on the solstice
thrusting her barcode–scanner at the sky
in ancient tongues.
she had slept with her brother
given birth to a dark prince
under a winter moon.
I tried to give her a look
a conspirator’s nod
tried to say without saying:
I know your secret.
I am like you.
Teach me about darkness
Teach me what cunt means.
On Easter she gave me
a piece of wrapped candy
the color of a rose.
Surely a sign, I thought. Surely a sigil
Hit the gas: a year passes. I am nine.
My father, King of the Underworld,
hires a new secretary with an alliterating name,
two B’s like a curved and curving body:
phones, faxing, light clerical work.
The word went off in my head like a pink sparkler:
Clerk is short for clerical.
How silly, to think Morgan le Fay
could ever ring up steak and milk and call for
clean–up on aisle six,
price check on belladonna,
accept coupons for half–off hideous destinies.
But I was a child then. From my nine–year crag I could
at my naivete.
Now I saw the shape of the universe.
That oatmeal–colored Bakelite phone:
her fell wand.
her horn of plenty.
She spoke into it
a voice strong and sure
brooking no dissent
shaping dire words and commands,
and a world comes alive,
Her file cabinet, an alphabetized cauldron.
Her white–out, a potion to turn back time
what went before.
I wanted to be her. This perfect clerk. I longed to
To cover black and irrefutable text
with forgiving, gentle snow.
I watched She–Ra after school. I knew not
to ask why Hordak kept stealing Adora
and dragging her underground to marry her.
I logicked it alone: Marriage
must be like that.
So good it’s worth breaking the world open.
you bolt at first warning
hell for leather and the other end of the episode,
blinking in the credits,
into the sudden sun.
Nothing like that could happen to a clerk.
I would be a clerk.
Besides, it never worked.
So what if he chains her to a wall in the dark. Growls at her
while they both
wear masks. She always
gets free. She–Ra
doesn’t have a husband.
That’s not who she is.
I drew in my notebook
Morgans and She–Ras
and underground caverns with chains
while my father and his great clerk of necromancy
worked past those talismanic 9–5 hours.
I bent my tiny will
to the mystery of her
two B’s. But
she did not turn her gaze
to me. Except once
to give me a piece of hard candy
the color of her frosty lipstick.
I took it
Witches, after all,
deal in candy. They build
houses out of it. Coffins. Castles. Witches know
what cunts are. Tools of power, perhaps
made of candy and glass
and iron and blood
like the sun and the moon and the stars in the sky.
in the world.
Two B’s never told me
where in that ashen
the C’s were kept.
Clerical, Clerk, Cunt.
The grocery girl
got bumped up to assistant manager.
And a video game
taught me the word
It flickered there.
definitive and defined
a creature of middling hit points
a dim glow of
But I was a child then.
Now I see the shape.
From the heights of thirty–three
chuckle with you
over the big dark bowl
of my innocence.
I make candy in my kitchen
coating the back
of a huge silver spoon
in roses and lipstick and blood on the snow.
I buy tomatoes and ice and lemons
eggs on the bottom
green onions and garlic on top.
And when I please,
I say cunt.
And people step back
by some unseen secretarial necromancer
alliterative fist. As if they are afraid
I have come up
in some dark mask
to take them into the dark
where I live.
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