Haunt of Thieves

A refugee from apocalyptic war comes to a desolated country, where the only escape from the sport of its occupiers — who will hunt him with dogs — is a mountain pass, the haunt of thieves… They kill and plunder in their own right. Gafeidda debates his chances with the Shepherd, but cannot bring himself to trust the Shepherd.

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Book One

 

One
Two 
Three
Four
Five 
Six
Seven

 

Book Two

 

The Wayfarer
The Bride
Her Stay
War-Making
They Won’t Return
Charity
King of Chaos

 

 


 

 

Haunt of Thieves

I.

 

Haunt of Thieves

Part One

 

You see, Gafeidda, how the road climbs to the bend

How perilous and narrow

The way is, that the passer must hug the mountain’s face

At the crest, how the sun at its mid-day height

Becomes a torch splintered by horns of grey rock

The dark rock

(His strength is a piercing flame; our god is distant, and hears not our lamentation)

The Old-Spirited One, we call the cropping

A tree by lightning smote

The haunt of thieves

When night falls, Gafeidda, you will know

The glow of embers, even now—

You see the brazier’s smoke

If you remain, you will not return

Hunted Gafeidda, you will long to burn

Cross there, quarry of thieves

Or linger, and be torn by dogs

 

Gafeidda hears the wind

This change from deadened frost to biting cold

That has gained potency from the noon hour

Onwards

It cries, this wind, like a child

The Shepherd says aloud

(The meaning will unfold, gradually;

and all you’ve staked your life on will be

brought to mediocrity)

Now drawing frozen hands to lower once again

His hat brim, muffle this pinpricking rain

Away, Gafeidda thinks the dogs, far below, cry too

Caged and let starve for days

Only days enough to make them hunger

They will be loosed

Before the sun has set

 

Haunt of Thieves

Part Two

 

A stranger to Gafeidda,

Bitter-hearted refugee who mistrusts this tale

And tells the Shepherd, “They are thieves, to be sure.

Friends of yours. You the dog and they the vultures;

theirs no sanctified nest, no god’s dwelling-place

defiled.

Nor will you let me

Know your name

(your belief is told in practice; and your act is hid from sight)

Shepherd, I live by gleaning. I have no coin, no noble name

To bargain with, my labor alone; and what I fear

Is to be made prisoner

For they say the jailer likes his charges quiet,

And that he gives them nothing other men might

want

They say he offers crumbs for bait and once informed

Marks his man and plays him for his sport”

“Pride,” the Shepherd says, “is coin.

This is so. There are those who will break you for it;

count as gain the taking of it. Run! And where the path grows steep

And when the hound’s maw snatches at your feet

When you fall, and flail at a blackened shape

And find it not a root

For indeed, they’ve charred a sign on every stone

Severed hands of venturers and scattered bones

You hear them now, Gafeidda, the chattering crows

Nothing frightens them

They can be rousted only when the glowing coals

Come in a rain from the pinnacle

And your living hands and eyes

Will seem to the carrion bird akin

To those of dead men she has feasted on

 

Pride…Gafeidda, you will not die

To me, your thought is plain

Moments pass, not one can you afford to waste

And still you waver and would rather hear

All I have to tell

I tell no more than you have heard below

You may cross at any time

You may return to the forest

And hope to go unseen

Yet though I say to you, ‘This way is death,

And that way also’

You feel, concealed within this choice, a thread…a light

A way to life

 

Haunt of Thieves

Part Three

 

Only now the river Bedhokan

She whose flowing waters

Gain in strength and claim

(For there is no answer to her whim; in their season

the iron clouds will rain)

A goddess’s Authority to shape the land

She cannot in her course be checked by laws

Of warring men

Only now passing watchtowers on the shore

Does the freight of flood-scoured wreckage

From the battlefield and forsaken town

Spill without heed

To the lost memory of the seafloor

Gafeidda would say no more

He understands and would have told the Shepherd so

That all synods of wisest men

Conclude with an old brutality

Ask the generals, if you will, or ask the farmers

Will they then at last give way

When the seedling’s roots have drawn the blood

From the slaughter’s soil

When lightning-flindered, forty seasons hence

These aging limbs must fall

And the kindling’s metal ore

Steeped in its moss and glassy resin

Burgeons to a conflagration

 

Will they now ungrip their fingers

And be reconciled?

…they will answer no

“No, I will not be at peace, not

while my enemy breathes”

And who, Gafeidda thinks, is the enemy?

 

The Bedhokan plunges here, the water’s curtain

Tears helter-skelter ’til each droplet

Atomizes sheeting the fallen rock

This impasse stalls Gafeidda at the height

That overlooks the sheltered way

And twice a torchbearer’s flame burns red

At the cavern’s mouth beneath the cataract

Long rains have undermined

Columned firs that anchored once the path

Now corpses in their resting place

The still-green crown still poised

Above the eddy

Held by its lacing of twiglets

That cannot bear a man’s weight

 

Haunt of Thieves

Part Four

 

Ravens hear the trembling gong’s alarm

Harbinger of rolling earth

Far away as yet but coming near

(Birds of the air may take to flight

Men and cities cannot do)

Souls they carry heavenward, on each feather tip

The lost descends to touch in parting

A temple of her beloved

Her fingers brush and cling to

His brow as a cobweb might

Lightning flares behind closed eyes

A momentary flowing together in exile

Of ghost

And death-in-life

She speaks before the whirlwind takes her

In spirit-language of old awakened sights

Demons they have imprisoned in a maze of circled lines

Etched by knife

Gafeidda can only trace the path again

Here is the short lieutenant with his grin

He holds a bottled soul in an outstretched hand

“Even the way in which our goddess carves the land

Proves us conquerors…we are invulnerable and Destined

and you

Like a fly hatched in an empty barn

Beat at the window while the sun glares—

The way is barred

You waste your time and the Shepherd knows”

These men are watchers and have seen

The sated flood below them roar

Where limbs of the floating dead

Entangled form a foaming raft

Of maggots shadowed by a trailing swarm

And this horror thrills the lieutenant

He feels that she favors his side, has chosen

A lofty place for them above the squalor

Their magic thus the stronger

 

The Shepherd where the path

Descends no lower

Shrouded there waits by the pillared stone

Toothed and tapered like a broken axe-head

And his face is white like bone

This rock he calls Aantahah—Ancient Father

His hand is raised and his eyes see nothing

 

Haunt of Thieves

Part Five

 

The sun lights Aantahah’s teeth like molten gold and falls

Fang-red through burning crevices of rock

Gafeidda’s boot-soles tread clay, tortured in ice-forms

The Shepherd sings prayer at the hour of offering

Aantahah mei’capeddre vorsairct

Mei’capeddre vorsac

(Ancient Father accept my sacrifice to you

Accept my sacrifice)

Now nothing can be gained but at the cost of suffering

And the Shepherd who like a comrade beckoned

Has turned his back

He kneels and prays to a stone face

And worse—“Your god,” Gafeidda says

Will topple with his blinded eyes, laid low

By the weight of crow-dung. Birds of omen use

him as their cess-pit. So lordly is your god…”

He steps from the path across fissured earth

And yet in doubt

Of finding strength to climb once more

He finds it

Burning anger rakes his arms like tinder catching fire

He strikes the Shepherd four times

“So great his potency―your god―that a dead man’s eye

Sluiced through the gut of a carrion-fowl

Paints him in malediction…and he bears it”

The hand falls

The chanting cadence had been broken only

By the landing of each blow

And now the Shepherd speaks

As though his work were done

“I will go with you.”

 

Where the night call hailing sundown

From the thieves’ den starts the crows

Buffeting from the summit with a shriek of wings

That marries to the shout of the lieutenant’s men

And twists like a thread of yarn into the mad baying

Of the dog pack

All come flying in a spiraling refugee mob

Like bats

 

Haunt of Thieves

Part Six

 

The Betoe’l-fowl awakens weak-eyed

On moonless nights she leaves her nest

And skulking to her mates, she fans her

Stinking feathers, peers with a predatory glint

(By dark inches

like standing stones bewitched,

beneath the starlight they three creep)

She hears a busy, wrathful peep, a tick, tick, tick

The Betoe’l-fowl draws nigh a tempest

More sibilant than the nighttime breezes

Yet the faint utterance of a rat

Or brown-backed cricket’s chirring

Is an impassioned battle scream

within this melée stirring life

Among the dead

Nibbled clean-boned by the rippling tide

She, who rules among scavengers; her muscled neck

her tail unfurling warning, her dagger bill

Impaling

And when she calls, her fellows in turn give voice

The shattering of glass suspended on a fluting note descending

Fabled as the parting wail of the slain

From mound to mound they vault the crest above

Met by the pack-leader slinging like a whip

Howl on howl

 

The piping exhalation of a burning thing, unearthly

Gathering on the hound’s

Moan, whistled in a man’s throat

The signal-cry again falls from the thieves’ haunt

 

One ember like an idol’s eye wobbles red

One follows, and they scintillate, crazed with rage

This forgotten god, he stares askew

Until the molten setting sun subsumes his light

So it seems

Gafeidda knows only one unanswered thing

The rest means nothing now

The Shepherd close behind keeps to his word

The thieves are also countrymen

The lieutenant with his foreign dogs

Third among unknowns, is not

But they are all murderers…and yet

…perhaps the Shepherd—he is a strange man.

Gafeidda asks, “Why, Shepherd, can I not

take my knife, cut the buttons from my coat?

Throw them on the path, all I have of worth

…would they not let me pass?”

 

Haunt of Thieves

Part Seven

 

“Fling to the devil what you will

Your brass is a thief’s for the taking

But deal as your faith demands

Do you suppose they offer peace―

Go, gather in the coals they’ve thrown

And make trade with them coin for coin”

Now so close, and baldly seen

The craft by which the snare is tightened

Dredged from the angled ditch and strewn

Over the slope before the rise

Gafeidda landing on loose stone

Would stagger through the tapered hollow

Where sheer rock flanks the Old-Spirited One…wife

In the Shepherd’s tale, to Aantahah below

To cross at speed is hopeless then, yet here Gafeidda

Means to run

 

But his eyes close

The voice of her comes ringing like a chain

Not the old woman’s

Not the even-handed goddess

Who loves the ones that pay her homage

The children who recall their parentage

Lay tokens at her feet

This song comes spinning like the marble of glass

Winking at evil, worn at the collarbone

“I will go with you”

 

She was not life―he lives, and knows the disquiet

Of her being near

And dying fear

Whisperings entangled in the weave of memory

She had been all that promised life

He finds at last the choice has not been made

Her song rests and he seems to wake

Above his head the music swells

Its final note becomes a clank of metal and a sliding swash

All else is dark now, but the rush

Ignites a flaring fire

Struck from behind

Gafeidda tumbles free

He has passed the trial

He leaps and runs, in no-man’s land

He runs but will not breathe

 

 


 

 

Haunt of Thieves

 

II.

 

The Wayfarer

 

Where miles-long grow embattled limbs

Above the sea, salt-hardened, east-laden

Shading pathways wound through sand and scoured stone

Each stone an anvil shape, every tangled crown

Untossed by wind

The wayfarer, led in hunger by a ghost

Stares aloft to see a figure clad in spider webs

Rigid with the stories of the dead

He that approaches tears his garments

Threads of charred flesh as he feels them

Whip-ends of deliverance

Peace

That, he tells this mute, this sage

Draws hands now gloved in silk

Away. Beggar’s hands that leave

The seer undisturbed

“Yours is a lie as well”

The splintering of an ocean’s iron weight

Fills this grove with a searing mist

He sinks in the lee of a seated form

A gust, and from the branches

A filament filters down

 

 

Haunt of Thieves

 

The Bride

 

All that promised love

The slaughtering of her house perfection

Of its kind

His knowing her this way, exclusion, even language

Only famine, or delirium…newly colored

Then promise was this sheer ravine

That forbade crossing

But by inches

It must be

Toe by toe

 

One moved or died

Still in shocked faces

Icicles, leaves glacéed in water

Sad lips smiling letters

Making by suggestion words

All these, in powdering vines or

Scuds his boots made in the loam and slime

All intimate, all theirs between them

He and the bride he hadn’t known

 

Haunt of Thieves

 

Her Stay

 

Water weighs the yoked woman

Stooped among refugees crowded here

Not threatened by grenades hurled from the sentry box

They let this trafficker within the gates

She may return

Water she bears reached by a path of heel marks

Baked in the mud and useless in the rains

Such times the prisoners have their thirst

Slaked, if they are willing to cup their hands

Save their coins

When that begging class that rings the walls

Has shouted up a handful

Extracted one for ten

The gatekeeper takes two

The prisoners curry favor for the last

 

She is not certain how she came into this body

Certain she cannot suffer worse for waiting

If her love is not sent to this place

The gods see in her some other deed

 

Fulfilled. Can he be dead?

She has never felt it

She unships her buckets and finds at an angle to the sun

This face reflect itself ugly…or not so, but dirty and plain

Not still the age that she had been

Not yet wholly resurrected

She feels the guts and nerveless skin

In dispassion, retain a mortal decay

Perhaps her stay is then ordained a short

 

Haunt of Thieves

 

War-Making

 

The blue soldier’s tunic

Dangles a last brass button as though the gamble

Of trade advances nothing

where an unhoused man can look

able to shift a pallet of brick, he commands the only currency

And pallid sick, blue in the face with sunken chest

Breeds invitation to a potshot

He will take this one-note tune as prophecy

When it falls and rings the water in her pail

 

But the mate who crutches at his side

Licking from fingertips the essence of tobacco

Smoking all day, and sore discontent when the last butt

Has burned away, the cripple smells of smoke

It may be only this

No power of authority his eye holds

But holds Gafeidda’s weary one in thrall

Certain this show of misery reborn

His savior, having earned a mug’s reward

 

Another death incarnated for to curse

The war-making insufficiencies of the race

Follows with her burden, drawing close

 

Haunt of Thieves

 

They Won’t Return

 

Tide fans up the estuary a warm salt froth

That rinses rot, that hinge of flesh

Holding a clamshell shut

The gulls discard them careless cracked

To bake and stink with dragging seaweed

And wooden ribs will lose their battle

The fisher in his stilt-house barters

For half a hull to piece together

A walking path that rings and rudely cheapens

Cliff falls of carven masonry small demons

Sunk to their necks in sand

The victors here permit the poor to move in rags

Often they won’t return

The stalls where the road comes down

Sell goods for coin, in lieu of keeping tabs

Their keepers point to posters, totals tally-marked

As ranks are filled

 

Two work side by side to ease a third across

She, the water woman, at this task undaunted

Whether or not the crippled man unwashed

Or lousy, both, her head is in his armpit

Her arm is round his waist

Her strength is wholly vested

The other cannot bring himself to grip

Has got the matted garment’s folds

And shuns the flesh

Tilts away, moves to the front, moves to the back

Purses lips and draws his brows

“My daughter, my true daughter,” the old man says

 

Haunt of Thieves

 

Charity

 

The camp takes all the rising ground

On the delta’s city side

Driftwood split, stakes driven in and roped

paper and cloth of every color, every kind

partition quarters curtain sleepers

Hard-faced pounding builders making use of time

New shelters in construction catching wind like kites

Fortress blocks dragged up on braids of kelp

serve for hammers then at length

Serve for thresholds

hearths and cooking fires are burning

so passing the avenue between

this market street

bargaining with a short-reined sanity

Arsonous anger waiting almost longing

for hunger’s wildcat claw to loose its grip

The ease of a lunatic on fire running house to house

meanwhile Gafeidda weaving in and out

has gained a mob

tracking him, knowing in the way of the jealous and deprived

he stretches his legs, he aims to gain the other end

to leave this crippled elder

and the woman, his prop, behind

Charity, virtue at the beggar’s entry strays without

Lingering there a place ahead of courage

Hollow-eyed refugees untroubling to a gatekept bliss

But troubling to the one who holds a fish

It comes to them to lift the old man on their shoulders

 

Haunt of Thieves

 

King of Chaos

 

The recruitment stalls are manned

Each by a bobbing puppet on a stick

Tittering in death’s head greasepaint

Shanty coffins banged at Gothic angles, these

Painted black, a bloated joke

A train scores the hill, a parade float

Straddled by some nameless King of Chaos

Loitered on, by back-leaning mockers, as the short lieutenant

As the wanderer recalls him

Why this lunatic was seething with it, professing faith

A twang of tautened muscles chirping, virulent in hate

Spectacle that it is, like a wedding’s trenchermen

Drawn in uniforms of velveted excuse-making

Mumbling, eating to obscenity, grinning falling drunk

Every soldier in this army kitted out for death

Certain death, but the camp is emptying

 

He wonders now, do I turn…ought I look

Does she follow there

And is the cripple my kinsman reborn

Her father also that priest of Aantahah

The Shepherd’s potent pillar of stone

Will he marry us, though she is old and foul in her way

And will this nuptial be the culmination

A sea of bodies, dragging over earthworks

Using the arms and legs that power them

Value in this sacrificial, this most literal spending of life

The tower men dusting their hands of a mess

Gafeidda will join his bride at last

 

 


 

 

mystery plays cover with dust mite

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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