poem03 Oct 2016 08:00 am



My education began
at the age of nine,
secret lessons held
once a month by
a masked tinker
who frequented our village.

Crouched among the evening dust
in the alley behind the butcher’s shop,
drenched in sweat and shadow,
watching intently as he drew
strange symbols in the dirt.

He spoke with a heavy Slavic accent
and wore bandages all over his face;
I once asked him what he looked like underneath
and he said that if I asked him again,
he would show me.

I learned how to dowse for water
and navigate by stars alone,
how to tell a good can
from an irradiated one,
and of course to work
the common metals.

At the end of our lessons,
he would often speak of his life before,
living along a great body of water
so large it circled the world,
ebbing and flowing, pulled he claimed,
by the movement of the moon,
in everything he said, there was magic.


For homework I was assigned
to fix our farm tools,
common axe and spade work,
quickly moving on to repairing
the plow and hydrator,
always prone to clogging
during the summer sands.

Long afternoons spent
in my family’s toolshed,
bent over artifacts left
by my grandfather,
“junk from before”
as my mother called it,
including a rifle and phonograph,
which eventually I got to turn,
but never found a record for.


I used the rifle only once,
on a dark summer night
when three men came to our farm,
men from outside the village,
who had heard my mother
was left alone with three young
girls and a strange little boy.

When they tried to break inside,
I hit the largest one in the chest, on my first shot.
he fell to the dirt, writhing,
the rest just stood there for a moment, staring,
before running off, back to their alkie
and their dingy little shacks on the edge of town.

They never bothered us again.


When I was fifteen,
my mother died of pox
and I chose to leave the village;
my older sisters had both married
to good local farmers, like our father,
and the third, our youngest, took to the cloth.

I had known since the day
I met the masked man
that I would go away,
traveling the world as he did,
though I would return many times
to visit my sisters and help where I could.

But before I left,
I asked him again,
what he looked like under all
those tightly wrapped,
thick-white bandages.

And he showed me.


The burns were extensive,
worse than I had ever seen,
he had no hair and his flesh
had turned black in places,
taking on the half-melted look
of a forgotten candle.

His left eye was almost completely
covered by a thin layer of skin,
he had no lips to speak of,
his worn and yellowed teeth
simply jutted out at any odd angle,
giving his appearance an almost
demonic cast in the gloaming light.

I stood there for a long time staring,
as he told me how it was going to be.

You can have this village, it is yours,
but there will be others, where I ply my trade,
you are not welcome there,
you must travel further out, as I did at your age,
do you understand?


You know the signs of the marauders,
don’t let them catch your scent
or you’ll never lose them
and do your best to skirt the crimson wood
or you’ll end up handsome, like me.

Do you understand?


And never take a job for free,
always make trade for something,
this way the world can keep turning,
do you understand?

I nodded, but he only laughed.

No. You don’t. But you will.

And with that,
he wound the mask
around his face once more,
and walked off into the growing night,
out of my village and out of sight,
into a world that belonged to him,
and that one day, would belong to me.


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