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

and off–emerald

I look up

from a paperback

I shouldn’t be reading

and ask

a room of fizzpopping wine glasses

advertising jargon

slingback shoes

what cunt means.


Salem’s Lot, or maybe Cujo.

Definitely King.

Picture the artist as a young spy

sneaking documents

from the adult world

to childhood’s impoverished nation — who,

after all,

needs them more.

My father put his hands

over mine.

Shut the book like a door. Took it back

to the high–security vaults of Grownupville.

Judgment from on high

in red and bright

redacted text:

You’re not ready for books like this. It’s ok

the dog dies at the end.

Message received.

This has been a test of the emergency preparedness system,

only a test.

In case of a real emergency, the following

rule applies:


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

Morte D’Arthur.

French things

are the most grown–up.


I puzzled it like a code

that, de–ciphered,

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

I read:


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,

too awful

too big

to say out loud.

The girl

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

at sorcery.


The way her fingers moved on the cashier keys

her nametag

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

bellowing price–checks

in ancient tongues.

Like Morgan,

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

and poisons.

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

of sisterhood.


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,


Get Done.

Her file cabinet, an alphabetized cauldron.

Her white–out, a potion to turn back time

to obliterate

what went before.


I wanted to be her. This perfect clerk. I longed to


Things Done.

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.

So frightening

you bolt at first warning

hell for leather and the other end of the episode,

blinking in the credits,

gasping relief

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

with reverence.

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

and ice

a cunt

like the sun and the moon and the stars in the sky.


You laugh.

But words

are everything

in the world.


Two B’s never told me

where in that ashen


file cabinet

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

I can

chuckle with you

over the big dark bowl

of my innocence.


These days

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.

I Get

Things Done.

And when I please,

I say cunt.

And people step back

eyes narrowing,


looking struck

by some unseen secretarial necromancer

grocery girl

alliterative fist. As if they are afraid

I have come up

in some dark mask

to take them into the dark

where I live.

More from Catherynne M. Valente:


  1. I feel like I’ve been taken on a journey. Beautiful work.

  2. Fantastic! Great pacing and images (especially the images used in the bit about making candy). Thanks! 🙂

  3. Beautiful.

  4. Yes! This is brilliant, and I remember the journey.

  5. Extraordinary. Wonderful magic potion.

  6. you are my favourite writer in the universe at the moment just read cities of coin an spice very inspired and impressed thankx


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