Rhysling Award Nominee “Long Poem”

By Mike Allen, Sonya Taaffe, and Nicole Kornher-Stace

1.
These gouges where glaciers furrowed toward the sea
were smooth-sloped still, ice-muscled, snowbound;
these waves, a salt-waste of frozen crests: and we
were handprints of smoke on ochre walls, the ghosts
of birds in dying flutes, the first time (they say)
the king of cats and the queen of wolves clashed.

Time had no current, lay still in all directions.
Gods and beasts and beast-gods stalked
each other across star-hot sand, through
tree-high grass, into forests that swathed
continents, where dragons long as rivers
shimmered through the branches, beneath
nights deep as the teeming abyss of Sea.
He walked alone across tundra oceans,
danced deadly through infinite verdant canopies;
she ghosted the ground beneath, golden eyes
seeking from shadow, a glint of silver and sable
in primeval snow. Her children huddled always
beneath her cloak, still without voice or form;
he had no followers, but the strength of a host.

Charcoal crumbled across a cavern’s ribs. Limestone
stained with torchlight, smoothed with time. Here
his eyes glint blackly, and there her tracks mark
north, truer than iron; but meteors fell and blazed
like untold angels as her teeth raked his throat,
his claws set in her shoulders, and here red ochre
smears for their blood that glittered (they say)
into garnet where it fell. How she tore her mouth
free to scream down the moon, how the tides
bulged and spilled over at her tempestuous howl;
how his strength rippled as he dragged the earth
aside, one hooked and contemptuous shrug,
and the delta lay differently then. Ice-floes
into warm swamps, magma cracking upward
beneath chill plains, sand skidded into snow
and all the globe torn awry in their battle:
all the nameless powers of beforetime rapt
to see whose children would inherit the earth.

Salt of blood and salt of ocean were one,
libations of violence that drenched day into night.
The might of their convulsions subsided, as must
all aftershocks; the outcome of their intimate war
undecided: each had torn the other countless ways,
subdivided selves roaming broken terrains, tundras
wrenched from jungles, peaks ripped from plains.
The battle neither won nor lost: momentum fractalled
in infinite directions, unfocused by entropy;
only the children, single cells of once great gods
remained, things of claws, teeth, stalking, silence,
united in death and hunger and hatred.

Time, punctured in fury, began its flow.

2.
The hall bustles with finery; to gaze
upon such silk and lace, white fur and blood-
red sashes, ribbons twined in wigs, a dance
of noble plumage, is to know that time
is just a toy to each pale-powdered face,
a strange place to resume epochs-old hunt;

yet silent blows the horn that starts the hunt
when, stepping to the flute, her wary gaze,
so vulpine-sharp, alights upon his face,
its supple bones, a smile that could draw blood;
a raging echo from the birth of time
commands them both, and as they close to dance,

their spirits have entwined unseen and dance
quite differently through half-remembered hunt,
claws and teeth that tore at flesh and time
a whirlwind through their minds as they gaze
into each other’s eyes, a taste of blood
tinting both their tongues as they face

each well-remembered, unfamiliar face
that paces in this politesse. This dance
traced to a pattern deeper still than blood
or bone that yet might falter in the hunt—
if minuets have tamed her moon-burned gaze
to shadowplay, worn token over time,

or if, within this masquerade of time,
he has misplaced his lover’s, killer’s face—
but watch how sleekly he bows to her gaze
and how her fingers vise his in the dance
as though his skin might slip. Now for the hunt
that reckons its spoils in more ways than blood;

a breath passed back and forth, the beat of blood
that faster than their measured steps keeps time
to the race of hearts, tuned to her hunter’s
silence mirrored in his lean-eyed face
as finally he pulls her close to dance
beneath the hall’s incurious, ageless gaze.

Her lip-rouge stained like blood upon his face,
where for a time he trapped her in his dance—
the hunt releases them to their shared gaze.

Perhaps in an unfathomable design
woven tight as atoms, deeper than sea,
fabric firmed before ruptured time’s flow,
all odds of enmity require this chance:
two things born from hate will meet and love,
and spin the clay of fear into new shapes.

In the dark their shadows form one shape,
that etches strange calligraphy, a sign
announcing the unknown, new forms of love
born in a humble chamber; do they see,
the courtesans dancing below? What chance
have they to sense the tremors flow

through time’s thin web, as lovers flow
against each other, pressing savage shapes
onto startled skin; without a chance
to understand the shiver in the air, this sign
of shattering change, the heedless dancers see
to their steps with masked facades of love

pressed cheek to cheek; how we all love
to hook limbs in bestial pairings and flow
in practiced mimicry of rites born in the sea
and before, when a mate or killer took shape
in the dark and a partner awaited the sign
to join or flee. As below, so above, a chance

meeting of godsparks leaves the world no chance
to spin unchanged; their furor masked as love
bent on mutual destructions, all the signs
clawed in their skin, in teeth marks that flow,
in the taste of each other’s blood, shapes
their bodies form, echoes of that struggle seen

before time began. At the height do they see
these fragments embedded within? Is there chance
for them to glimpse these primal shapes,
the Queen astonished in the power of her love’s
embrace, the startled King’s arch and flow—
Fate’s tapestry restitched in new design.

Seeking meaning in this unexpected love,
at first chance she asks scrying water’s flow
what shape the child will take, but gleans no sign.

3.
From the pierced heart of the world, time gouts
and stutters, gouts and trickles to surcease. The hall
is wrack, cold carrion beneath a sunless noon, spoils
of no war but entropy. So too the other battlefields
and bridebeds have flared and dimmed, each one a pan-flash
in a plate of ice, each imprinted with its sullen,
crimson ghost. She stalks what once were roads. Moons
pare themselves to nothing and ripen anew, rearing
through a pall of ash; neither her cat’s eyes nor
her wolf’s nose deign to crave that feeble light. She walks:
as one, the ghosts of ghosts, pale hunting-trophies
on time’s bloodied belt, will turn to her, then cringe away—
and each one wears her face. At her footfall, holographic flowers
flicker out.

It was not always thus. Her hunt was once a hunt; the city once
a city, or a ruined city, or a meadow where a ruined city stood.
Now there are walls, or ghosts of walls, or ivy clutched
to nothing where the ghosts of walls once loomed: no fire
rains down around her; no wolf’s-claw, cat’s-claw banners raised
where she had thought to sleep (though their holograms, archived
in the city’s histories, do flicker in and out betimes, in quick
succession, or else overlaid, one veining through the other like
a leaf held to the sun). Her mother’s bloodline
and her father’s both reach back and back through time, hand over
hand, as though drawing pails up from dry wells—but never
forward, and none remain to tell her her own secrets. She camps
the murals ’til they round their circuit, flicker in: she sees the cities
rise, the feline and the lupine both; she sees the walls forget
who raised them; she sees each one’s inhabitants go interloping
through the other’s gates; she sees wars, détentes, truces
sublimated into legend as the bombs wail down—truces forged anew
upon the finding of a common enemy: the spreading web of by-blows
with hearts that pump the blood of both. Now they are dust, her mother’s
kin, her father’s; she alone slogs on, despite their greatest efforts
unannihilated, though the shots still dog her dreams, and she wakes
ducking, rolling, baring claws her grandam’s grandam might
have worn, which every time resolve to fingertips, soft and unavailing,
in the light.

They say (they said, for who remains to say?)
the king of cats, the queen of wolves died childless,
were each reborn, and childless died again: each iteration torn
from his/her father’s/mother’s side, a tumor whose metastasis
gnawed worlds to dust, sucked stars like eggs, raked time’s weft
shrieking out of true. Thronged by ghosts of her past selves she hunts,
each feinting as she feints, each pouncing at the shadow of the one before,
each emptyhanded, emptyclawed, clean-toothed and parched
for blood. By her cat’s-heart’s, wolf’s-heart’s metronome she walks,
the last in line, the shadowless, unmoored in time, and trusting to
her mother’s strength, her father’s luck: when at last a shadow
turns to her unbidden, eyes glazed with lust for blood or flesh,
her muscle memory will give reply; when at last time wakes from stasis,
shakes her clinging from its crippled back, regardless for how long,
how far she falls, she will land always, always
on her feet.

Mike Allen works as the arts and culture columnist for the daily newspaper in Roanoke, Va., where he lives with his wife Anita, a goofy dog, and two mischievous cats. In his spare time he does a ridiculous number of things, including editing the critically-acclaimed anthology series Clockwork Phoenix and the long-running poetry journal Mythic Delirium. His own poetry has won the Rhysling Award three times, and his fiction has been nominated for the Nebula Award. He’s also active in local improv theater, where he’s often asked to provide the voice of an Ominous Narrator or play the part of Satan. You can find his blog at http://time_shark.livejournal.com and his website at http://www.descentintolight.com.

Sonya Taaffe has a tried and tested devotion to mythology and folklore. Poems and short stories of hers have won the Rhysling Award, been shortlisted for the SLF Fountain Award and the Dwarf Stars Award, and been reprinted in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, The Alchemy of Stars: Rhysling Award Winners Showcase, The Best of Not One of Us, and Trochu divné kusy 3, and a selection of her work can be found in Postcards from the Province of Hyphens and Singing Innocence and Experience (Prime Books). She holds master’s degrees in Classics from Brandeis and Yale and once named a Kuiper belt object. You can follow her blog at http://sovay.livejournal.com.

Nicole Kornher-Stace was born in Philadelphia in 1983, moved from the East Coast to the West Coast and back again by the time she was five, and currently lives in New Paltz, NY, with one husband, two ferrets, one Changeling, and many many books. Her short fiction and poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of magazines and anthologies, including Best American Fantasy, Clockwork Phoenix 3, Apex Magazine, and Fantasy Magazine. Her poem “The Changeling Always Wins” placed 2nd in the 2010 short form Rhysling Award, and her short fiction has been longlisted for the British Fantasy Awards and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She is the author of Desideria, Demon Lovers and Other Difficulties, and The Winter Triptych. Her current novel-in-progress is a blend of steampunk and mythpunk, with a Lady Explorer, a fake Tarot, a workers’ rebellion, a demon-possessed airship, and other miscellany. She can be found online at www.nicolekornherstace.com or wirewalking.livejournal.com.

Mike came up with the concept for “The King of Cats, the Queens of Wolves,” but had Sonya not begun the poem and Nicole not finished it, you would not be reading it now.

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  1. Apex Magazine garners 5 Rhysling Nominations! « Apex Magazine - [...] Mike, Sonya Taaffe, and Nicole Kornher-Stace, “The King of Cats, the Queen of Wolves,” Apex Magazine, Iss. 22, Mar.…
  2. Apex Publications News–February 26th – March 8th | Official Blog of Apex Publications - [...] Mike, Sonya Taaffe, and Nicole Kornher-Stace, “The King of Cats, the Queen of Wolves,” Apex Magazine, Iss. 22, Mar.…

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