What Is Owed

by C.S.E. Cooney

For Dominik Parisien

Magpie boy, you've not stealth enough
For theft; your black too bold, your blaze too bright, besides
Your strut, your stripes, your proud, precipitous tail and raucous hymn —
Would you steal what I would give? No. But you would trade for it.
Yes, yours, I see, is a world made of bargains
'Twas bargain that begat you, back in the beginning
And almost ere you hatched, you spoke of barter
I met you on the road once, bent double (I think it was you)
In ragged robe and cowl, an old woman croaking fortunes
You scanned my palm with eyes like craters
But would not speak my future without first tasting silver
Silver have I none, said I — and off you flew into a sky
That swallowed you, and I went on my way, still ignorant
But also wiser, maybe
Later, on an errand for the dead, I walked to the riverbank
Perhaps to scatter ash or pray the drowned to peace (I misremember)
There you were, gaunt as Death but wilier, offering a seat on your boat
If I said the proper rite, made the correct gesture, bowed low enough
I was never taught those prayers, said I — and away you rowed
Into black and white waters, leaving me to sink in the privacy of grief
Priceless silence, where tears rained as pennies on a beggars' parade
A man in the bar one night, straight-backed, upright
In his black hat with long white plume, snapped his deck
Of cards, cut and shuffled, restless as a ruffled bird, told me he
Might grant my heart's desire for just one lock of my hair
Devil, said I, but my soul is braided there! — and he cawed out a laugh
Cards spraying from his claws, scattering to land Joker-side up
Fifty-two monochrome clowns, giggling with gargoyle mouths
I sent my friend a dagger to protect her from the Magpie boys and
Kestrel girls who slink and cheat and boast their ways through the
Wilderness; she pressed on me a coin, lest with the dagger's edge
Our friendship be cut
But it was the coin itself that cut, gripped to blood in my fist
Oh, Magpie boy, in this hollow-boned world, with your bird's heart beating at its core
Even gifts must be paid for.

C.S.E. Cooney lives and writes in a well-appointed Rhode Island garret, right across the street from a Victorian Strolling Park. She is the author of How To Flirt in Faerieland and Other Wild Rhymes and Jack o' the Hills. Her novella "Martyr's Gem" is live at GigaNotoSaurus, and her short story "10 Cigars" appeared at Strange Horizons this July.

She wanted, initially, to say that Bright Star is her favorite film to feature poetry, because, like, KEATS! But then she remembered that she really does prefer that scene in Dangerous Beauty when the courtesan is improvising rhyming couplets while fencing in the palace gardens with her (total bastard) rhyming opponent. And she looks fabulous doing it too.

Previous | Back to Table of Contents | Next