History, Writing, Things-in-Between
I'm a writer of history, fiction and things in-between. I currently work at the University of St. Andrews and offer bespoke academic mentoring and editing services. I'm also Lead Reader at Open Book Dundee, and I'm represented by Jamie Cowen at The Ampersand Agency.
The Heart of the Swallow Queen
Corvid Queen, Sword & Kettle Press, 2021
Claw & Blossom, 2021
Well Done/You're Welcome Zine, 2017
Jupiter Artland, 2016
Homecoming Zine, 2016
Edinburgh Fine Art Library, 2012
Words On Canvas, National Galleries of Scotland, 2010
125th and Lenox
The Scotsman, 2009
My most recent publication is Black Power and the American People which traces the long history of the black power movement from plantation folk-narratives through the iconoclasm of the Harlem Renaissance, the battleground of the American campus, the struggle and skill of the Negro Leagues, the drama of the boxing-ring, the killing fields of Vietnam and the cold concrete of the penitentiary, right up to the soaring sounds of Detroit techno and the electric imaginings of Afrofuturism. It can be bought direct from the publishers, or from Amazon.
"With eloquent prose and analytical precision, Rafael Torrubia brilliantly illustrates the significance of Black Power as a “revolutionary cultural concept”.
Challenging conventional periodisations and narratives, Black Power and the American People connects a diverse range of individuals, movements and moments to show how self-determination has always been a central demand of the African American freedom struggle.
This is essential reading for anyone wanting to better understand the complexity of Black Power and how the movement continues to resonate today."
― Nicholas Grant, University of East Anglia, UK
I offer both SAAS and SFNI supported, as well as bespoke, mentoring services, designed to help students with any challenges they may be facing in their studies. I have particular expertise collaborating with students with ADHD/ADD, depression, anxiety and other conditions. Private and DSA rates available on request, so please drop me a line!
I offer a bespoke editing service for academic and fiction manuscripts, monographs, theses, and essays. I have over ten years editing experience, working on major manuscripts, journal articles, ScotGov documents, and a variety of student theses, and I am proficient in MLA, AP and Chicago-style citation amongst others.
Please contact me to discuss an affordable rate for your project.
... superbly reliable and efficient ...
... The technical details of my dissertation were rendered pristine...
... I have never experienced an editing process that went as painlessly and quickly ...
.... suggestions as to style and content were insightful and a great help....
... My editor remarked that she had seldom come across drafts so perfectly presented ...
Postgraduate Administrator, University of St. Andrews
October 2020 - Present
Public Lecture Programme Coordinator - University of St. Andrews Open Association
October 2019 - October 2020
Course Coordinator and Lecturer: 'Understanding America', St. Andrews University Open Association
September 2018 - Present
British History Programme Coordinator: Oxbridge Academic Programs
June 2015 - Present
Social Sciences Lecturer (Part-Time): University of the Highlands and Islands
November 2015 - Present
Diploma Examiner (History): International Baccalaureate
May 2014 - Present
Lecturer: Department of Modern History, University of St Andrews
May 2011 - December 2015
Teaching Fellow: Department of Modern History, University of St Andrews
February 2009- May 2015
Undergraduate Studies Advisor and Matriculation Official: University of St Andrews
September 2014 -February 2016
Publish my new novel.
autumn will come
what we learn in the dark
a thing that dreamed of trees
the avoidance of sound
so much happiness
a thing that dreamed of trees (ii)
journeys into quiet
songs of scotland
it begins as a house
the second half
your teacher means well
hawser & salt
thin dark boats
menu de los dias
the sea captain's daughter
the three dogs of the huntress
the heart of the swallow queen
gilding the monkey
the absent king
My family tell too many stories, wide-mouthed and Spanish. So many that they’ve fallen into my head over time, like frogs into a pond.
The frogs surface occasionally and croak little lies. They say I was there in the field when my cousin drowned, slipped deep into a drainage sluice, hands grasping against the light.
I was not. I cannot remember wet fingers or wide eyes, but I feel like I do.
I keep the toy motorbike he gave me on the shelf, green as a beetle, rusted to nothing.
The frogs tell me I saw my father fight a bull. I did not. I wasn’t born, but I can still hear the hot-sun crowd, still see blood on the sand every time his fingers run over an old horn-struck scar.
Go and open the door.
Go and coax the fire from the grate.
Take it for a walk, let the tips of your fingers brush the coals.
Go and open the door.
Let the teacups hatch and scatter the shards of their shells in the garden, until the sprouts come up.
Go and open the door.
Unravel the cat and give it a good dusting.
Knit some kittens from the old yarn and put them in your back pocket.
Leave one on the stile for when you pass in the morning.
We are looking at two kittens.
One ginger, one black. They do not look like they are having a good time.
One is wearing a blue ribbon, one pink.
The kittens’ ears are bent at the corners where the postcard is weathered.
In red and white text, the postcard reads: ‘A fine old time in Cornwall.’
There is a stain on one corner. Hopefully, it’s chocolate.
On the back there are two stamps and, neatly lettered, an address.
The postcard reads: ‘Dear Mary, I hate it here. All the boys look like wet fish and the air tastes of salt. Can’t wait to see you when I get home.’
I’m an indeterminate age.
I’m an undetermined age,
I am dreaming, and in the dream I am asleep.
I am asleep in the window of my parents’ home.
On the window seat, which is beige, or might as well be.
The curtains are drawn but something moves beyond them, like blood under skin.
Shadows bruise the fabric, which bellies outward.
I am asleep, but my fingers fall outside the curtain.
Brush the hem.
Until something else touches them
A tongue, then teeth.
Takes my hand in its jaws, and bites down.
Hard enough to bruise the bone.
and the green
and the trees
and the wet
and snow drops
and the earth has
and aren’t we lucky?
and isn’t that a joy?
and isn’t that
The songs of Scotland are muffled in the dark, beneath blankets, in the back of the car. The neon of the motorway’s light flickering against half-closed eyelids.
The songs of Scotland are muffled above the frozen roof of the cottage at night, as the sound of owls loops loosely over the tiles.
Muffled on the high slopes of the glen. Wet in the bracken where the deer sleep.
We’ll find echoes of them in the morning, shotgun casings, bare in the grass.
The startling red of a hind with her throat torn out.
The snow has fallen and lain, fallen lead white and lain.
There is a lid on the world, it’s been sealed away, and the only flurry left is snow on snow.
Ice atop, and ice beneath.
Seems a shame, to move across it.
Seems a shame to bring a body into this.
To be a person amidst all this white.
All pulse and breath and blood.
Hard to be still like the snow.
Hard to be sealed away.
Hard to be still when the world keeps running.
How lovely these journeys into quiet
How lovely the last breath
and how holy the first
we sing to ourselves as the planet is burning
I sing to you as your hand slips from mine and the sea rises to the horizon
the quiet comes after the song
as the ash falls from Amazonian trees
as the waves push beaches down into gravel
as we raise fences and cages
quiet lives in these spaces
in the strips of shadow on the tops of the waves
waiting until we find the song
I cannot eat membrillo for it is full of ghosts.
I don’t know at what point they get in there.
I wonder if they come in with the light, if they crawl down the rays of the sun and into the leaves of the plants and swell up the stems and wait, and wait, and wait.
Until finally they push out into pulsating yellow fruit.
Perhaps when you pick them, you can hear them inside.
The ghosts, I mean.
Shake a quince in your fist. Listen to the spectral skull of your great-great-grandfather pinballing off its wet little inside.
Maybe if we juiced the fruit, the ghosts would flow out, slow and sticky as wine.
It’s possible the ghosts get in with the light, but if they do not, then I think they come in with the boiling.
As we all know, boiling creates steam. Splitting the air with water. Veiling it just enough that spectres can move through.
From the beyond, or the spice cupboard. I don’t know. I don’t know where they come from.
But they get in there.
You can see them. Even when you stir the syrup, the briefest ripple as the hand of your cousin, the one that drowned, surfaces above the roiling pulp and gives you an inappropriate thumbs-up.
But then, he was always an optimist. Smiling even as the water took him.
So it is possible, that the ghosts get in with the boiling, or with the light.
More likely though, that they get in with the pressing, and the chilling.
The dead love the cold? Is that not the truth?
The dead love the cold almost as much as they love you.
So it’s no surprise that they sneak in. Congealing in the freezer.
Lay the plates carefully or you may find fragments. Of an aunt, an uncle, someone more distant and less defined perhaps, but fragments. Crumbled in the ice-cube tray. Stuck incongruously. Gelid and silent, and really, judging a little more than they should.
More than is fair.
It is not your fault. It is not my fault that I cannot eat membrillo, because it is full of ghosts.
Because, you see, listen, please. Because, you see, if they do not get in with light, or the boiling, or the chilling. If they do not, they get in upon the blade of the knife.
So, you cannot even cut it. You cannot even savour a s ingle small sugared slice without the taste of your grandmother’s disdain. And does that not spoil a meal, a midnight snack, even the lightest of lunches?
I cannot blame them though, the ghosts. And neither should you.
They all left so soon.
They all left yearning. they are all drawn back inexorably, to the light, to the air, to the briefest sweetness. To you.
God, if god is a flavour.
Incense, sweat, sugar, blood.
Coffee. Boiled milk.
Anise at sundown.
Split seeds, white teeth, black veils.
Rosemary burnt by the sun
White stones, goat meat.
Crushed ants, cat food.
Sherry, bull’s blood.
Arcs of air.
Hot leather, prawn shell.
Storm fallen orange.
Fish bones, cat bones.
Burnt tomato mornings.
Barbacoa, turned rice.
Peaches melting in orchards.
Asphalt and salt.
We took it for granted. Let it slip down our throats without an edge of benediction.
Grabbed ourselves one bottle every year.
Half the fun in the holding of it, in the curves of it.
All that smooth glass filling our young hands.
The liquid inside not an afterthought but, you know, a different stage of the trick.
Year after year we took it for granted.
And if our hands got older, the glass stayed the same.
And still, we were steady on the cork, and confident breaking the seal.
We picked red from under our nails all through the night.
Clapped each other’s shoulders, felt the planes of the backs of our friends move
in the firelight, in the warmth
refilled, and poured, and poured again
again, again! if you can believe it
and god if we weren’t wanton
and if we didn’t want to be wanton
and if the wanting that filled us wasn’t washed away
by every tip of the squat neck
and the bright rim
we took it for granted, again
and again, if you can believe it
one bottle every year
and if those of us that gathered round it shrank
as we drank, then
who was counting, you don’t count death,
not at a time like this
not at a time like that
not anytime you can get away with it
every hand a cup
and every cup for the filling
and maybe a bit of us
as we were filled
maybe a bit of us flirting
with what that meant
with what it cost us
to pour and drink and pour again
and yet, friend
you know the tale
we took it for granted
year after year with
year after year
we took it for granted
half the fun in the holding
and half in the drinking
until we realised
of course, of course you know
until we realised that we had got our numbers wrong
that the world had been doing its own counting
and what it had tallied
wasn’t just numbers
but something else
another little cost that ticked
with every tip and slip
that we never even counted
never even countenanced to count
as we drank every drop in the
light of each other
never pausing to wonder
how much our thirst
had cost us
how little was left
in that beautiful bottle
we had drained
a huge woosh and a
huddadadudada chonk to you
and all your flimp-flump family
Last swooshmas, SO merry
swooshed so much
swished brussels sprouts
swushed even a whole turkey
all plugged in at the wall
Nowtryinmorraneva in these now times
Now times now now now
get a clunk-click
get a vwommvwomm
get a rattle and a chunk
swushmas means swush
swush a canape
swush a prawn
Abbrtrt – flehh
swush the swushmas tree
swush those you care about
and swush each other
Car crash eyes
eyes like wet-dipped rocks
a shriek like a mother that’s lost her child
soft and low beneath the moon
an underwood lullaby
a head on an eternal pivot
radar dish bones
and feathers softer than sleep
the stoop of it into the corn
a diver in black grass
small lives plucked from between the stems
coughed up later in neat packages of
A low red, hung on the edge of hills burnt down to dusk by the falling sun. Like a guttered wick, the stub of a struck match.
A low red, slicked across the sodium streets. Licking the dog-tongue gutters and pooling under the wheels of cars.
A low red, coughed up on the banks of bridges, spat into dark water.
Swilling away from light, somewhere into the black below.
The snow has fallen. Fallen and lain.
He digs. He digs though his hands are raw.
Huffs on his fingers, mutters to himself.
Digs into the earth, black and cold and unforgiving.
Roots turn the metal of the spade, slip from under it like an unhappy lover.
Still he digs, the blade punching down through the frost.
The dog has been lost for two days now, the hearth bare and empty.
He doesn’t hold much hope in his shivering heart, but he holds some.
So, he grits his teeth, huffs on his hands and digs.
There’s a summer house at the bottom of the garden that sings in the morning.
When the light of the sun hits it, it sings a quiet little song, like the background hum of a half-heard radio. The seedlings turn their heads to listen, shifting in the warm soil.
When the sun hits, the old mug rings, the mud on the mat dances. The summer house thrums, like the chord of a guitar struck by fingers that are half bees, half starlings, half the shift of honeysuckle against the blue sky.
Next to the summer house is a garage, harled into greyness, its varnished bones holding up wasp nests that blossom like sizzling flowers in the pine-stained dark.
It remembers resin, and sawdust, and the cut of the saw that came before.
It remembers holding the spades that turned the earth, the wheels of cars that rolled in and out, crunching gravel into rose pink puffs.
When the summer house sings, the garage moves its plastic tub memories on its black steel shelves, looks out the window at the garden and listen to that old familiar tune.
There are three drawers.
One for sweaters, woolly jumpers. General knitted things.
One for t-shirts, sorted by colour, rolled because you saw Marie Kondo once and thought it might make you a better person.
One for socks, underwear. Unrolled because there’s only so much time in the day.
Let’s leave that drawer for now.
The jumpers get folded, arms behind the back. The way your grandfather did it. Like you were going to lay them out for a small boy going to school.
They should smell of nothing except wool, detergent and a few persistent memories.
The t-shirt, as I mentioned, gets rolled, although it doesn’t make much difference.
Select them out by colour, green and yellow for good days, black to feel safe. Blue when there’s nothing else left. Pretend you’re going to throw the blue ones away.
The sock are chosen by colour. Don’t get too attached to the first pair. You’ll get wet feet when your Dad over fills the kettle, when you step too close to the dog’s bowl.
Pants are pants. Match them to your t-shirt, because even if no-one sees, it’ll put a secret spring in your summer step.
I never feel more Scottish.
The first when I was four.
Fell's the bakers.
Glass smudged by fingers.
A treat, half paper, half pastry, half hope, half grease.
Slippery from the heat, from the knowing.
Nowadays, I buy them when I’m tired, when the streets are dark.
A treat, half paper, half pastry, half hope, half grease.
The tops of houses, flecked with pigeons and satellite dishes
receiving the sound of the street
newer glass skewers the brown brick
holds the sun as it falls
somewhere, a dog
somewhere, the shriek of children
somewhere, your mother is calling you home
somewhere there is light
somewhere the hiss of the TV screen
the tops of houses, flecked with pigeons
the static of the city
the satellite dishes
the weeds between
transmitting down into the dark
There is a thing in me that dreamed of trees.
There is a thing in me that dreamed of birds.
There is a thing in me that dreamed of stones, and the rivers that ran over stones.
There is a thing in me that dreamed of night
and a thing that woke at morning
a thing that felt the sun
and a thing that fled the rain
there is thing in me that
left the forest and a thing that
called it home
Like distant ships in mist, or bells
the ghosts of the dead are leaving at last
every filament of their bodies given up to sea foam
or wandering onwards to light
your late father’s hands and his tartan legs
vanish in a spray of gulls
your mother stoops regretfully below a cormorant’s wing,
the sky unspools for them, these dead
their feet still damp from river water
crumbs still on their lips
the sky unspools for them and
they do their best to leave
or to make their leaving seem like a half-closed door
your small brother ducks beneath the prow of a tug boat
floats until the propeller spin drags him under
leaves as little bubbles of light
Like distant bells, or ships in mist
the ghosts of the dead are leaving
and the quiet behind them does nothing to mark their passing
just moves in the kelp on the seashore
on the wings of the gulls
and down the backs of the buildings
as the city slides to night
there is a light that is lit on the islands, and it call the sailors home
there is a light that is placed and spun in glass on the edge of the salt
as the earth falls to water
as the lands falls to the sea
there is a light on high,
and there are lights below
candle-struck, warmed through
rippled glass and held between wearying hands
there is a light that hangs on the edge of prayer
and a light that falls unheard into the breakers beyond
there are lights that are lost and lights that are kindled and there
are lights that keep the stars pinned high
as the earth falls to water
as the land falls to sea
Newly discovered in the sky
a constellation, the Absent King
To the east, four stars forming a scepter, dropped. Signifying abdication.
At the northmost point, the planets Pelageus and Acheron, forming his split crown
On the west, the five faint lights of his hand, spread wide.
For this reason, he is known in the far realms as the Beggar, and signifies despair.
In the center, the burning remains of the dead planet, Oresteia.
Still smoldering, eons of red light forming the last blink of his eye.
Bring down the lights, bring out the drum. That big one with the ceaseless beat. That thrumming thump which screams of old cinema, MGM and the lion’s roar.
Roar yourself, open your mouth and let go of the last bit of control.
Bring down the lights and curl up in the dark.
In your new lair.
With only the sound of your breathing.
Your breathing and the drum.
The drum, your thump, your heart, the drum.
Gilding the monkey
To fete someone far beyond their accomplishments, skill, talent or appearance.
Positive – “I thought having the janitor helm the parade would really be gilding the monkey, but his trumpet skills were incredible.”
Negative – “I can’t believe the Whitehouse staff have been gilding the monkey for four long years.”
There is a thing in me that dreamed of trees.
a wet and wild little thing, a half-chewed bird hung behind my heart
that shivered when my lungs shivered
that found a voice in the sun
in the driving rain
in a storm, in that cattle-herded roll
over the tiles of my town
the tops of my teeth
a thing in me that dreamed of trees
that sought them still
even in cities
even in fire smoke
even when told it was home
The first thing you saw were the towers, held red in the light of the setting sun.
The sound of the song that flowed from them, the language of blackbirds poured down hot stone.
I remember my mother’s voice, balanced on the edge of the well, dipping into the water.
When night fell, the branches of the trees unfurled and gave up lizards, small and fast.
I remember waking in the night to one balanced on my ribs, feeling its small claws tickle my throat as I looked into eyes that twitched like wet amber.
Walking into the streets at night, I saw other lizards in cages. Piled atop one another. I imagined I could hear their hearts hammering in the flower darkness as they strained against the bars.
Seeking the insects that flew under the unfurled branches, fading in the last red light from the singing towers far above.
a composite found poem made from whole and half-remembered lines from my Open Book writers,
plus some new connecting tissue
nettle-sting the skin
gorse & cutting
the songs always tell a story
hum quietly in rain and patience
two men with sten guns
the carriage of galaxies
where no great tree could ever grow
much to see in the evening light
the road bridge stands
winter has played its last pack of cards
folded gently into the embankment
hollow reeds and crumbled brick
the geese know
the decay of greenness
it is after all, a passing
the world is ripe, overripe
men disgorging in the gap
key in the door
oil drums and planks and sailing on the Tay
the smell of steam trains
buildings slam against buildings
swirling, lashed, continued
shape and colour become impact
wandering streets cast their eyes on the sea
and find it changed
they are building a space station under the rowan tree
a foxhole of flowers
and emails in the half dark
endless church Sunday
grass for grazing
teal mixed to paste
as yellow birds fly past
pudgy, soft hands
strange and unreal
someone’s bigger plans
speaking through the house
soundless as the season
a wounded day
a workshop full of the past
of skin retraction
and myths underground
we follow still, muted
it’s an even pounding in 2/4 time
punctuated by the saliva that
drips to the ground
the respiration and drag of pebbles
silt and stone
Skeins of geese write a word across the sky
and the word is winter
not winter as we know it
but the winter of birds
the winter of a magnet in
the heart, singing South
pulling hard against the breastbone
and drumming in the blood
as wings lift the lips of clouds
as feet touch the edges of the sea
as the compass needle shifts, twitches,
yearning towards home
The track vanishes into the pines. I can’t count them. The track vanishes into the pines and the dry stone of the riverbed twists under my feet.
Insects in the air, and fish in the water. Salmon, maybe.
Voices in the trees, distant.
Ghosts of celtic warriors orienteering around their graves.
The track vanishes into the pines. Small black frogs amidst the needles, ditch-wet.
Watching every step, trying to keep their little hearts alive.
Down the river, herons, and in the woods, foxes.
They’re probably doomed anyway.
The track vanishes into the pines, and their branches knock against each other, calling home.
the sounds here are built on the avoidance of sound
life steps around noise
life moves within the quiet like slow water
the silence is for the benefit of God
which is to say
it is for the benefit of people who believe in God
for people who wish to breathe
for people whose blood moves like a held breath
there is a sound here but it
moves in the exhale
in the bending of the birch
in the rain that falls into gutters
cupped like hands on the edge of grey stone
sound flares briefly in the embered heart of a log
it hangs in the fire-smoke
and stings the reddened eyes of the sister who kneels
who moves small sounds in the knocking of rosary beards
sounds lingers residual in the organ pipes
music the same colour as the painted roof
music that evaporates as the day unfolds
scattered notes that gathered by magpies
and flown on the clatter of their wings
out beyond the bend of the birch trees
and into the wider silence beyond
It had been a long day at the office.
Ghosts and whispers around the water cooler.
Knocking back little plastic cups full of memories.
Collecting babble in ring binders and filing them in echo cabinets.
It had been a long day at the office, xeroxing my father’s memories until they faded into grey. My fingers getting blacker as I worked.
At the office, a long day, making spreadsheets of fragments. Tallying up the scraps of old lives and seeing if they still took the shape of a person.
Long office at the end of the day, trying to find some sense amidst the shards.
The day of the office, long at the end.
My house was broken into yesterday.
Lost four jackets, some cash.
Not that fussed about the cash.
But the jackets.
It’s strange. It’s stupid. I know it’s stupid, but there were jackets I could remember wearing on holidays, with family, holding hands on frozen walks, getting soaked through until the wool stank like a wet dog.
So, the jackets are gone.
The memories, I know, stay.
But for a moment, it feels like someone has touched them, like a ghost slipping into my past life.
Like an uninvited spirit at the bottom of the bed.
‘I have tried to see you thirteen times’, he said.
‘Thirteen times?’ I replied.
‘Yes’, he said.
‘I would apologise’, I said, ‘but I do not care.’
‘Or rather, I am incapable of caring.’
His face soured at that, every line curdling. It didn’t do him any favours.
‘Well’, I said, attempting the shape of something conciliatory. ‘You are here now. What do you want?’ Perhaps a little too much flint in my tone there, as he flinched like a struck snake.
‘It’s my wife’, he began, his eyes running over the jars stacked in the half-light behind my hear.
‘Ah, you want her dead!’ I said.
‘No’, he cried.
‘Disappeared’, I said, smiling shark toothed.
‘No’, he shrieked, his stubby little fingers knitting anxiously.
‘What then?, I snapped.
‘I want her happy’, he sighed.
‘Oh’, I hissed. ‘We don’t do that sort of thing here.’
Owl’s table they called it.
Out back in the woods.
A wet old stump, half sunk.
We used to gather their nights.
Half a bottle of cider. A handful of squashed Lambert & Butler nicked from my Mam’s dressed, and that was it. We were set. Chatted about whatever we liked, who we fancied, who we definitely did not fancy.
Until the night the owls actually came.
Just one at first, speckled, big as your arm. Then a second, barn owl face [lit up] like a starched ghost.
A mouse still twitching feebly in its claws.
We had no clue what to do, so we offered them a drink, a smoke. They took it graciously, clumsily, wings flapping.
Drank deep, and started to tell us where it had all gone wrong.
Christ, but I am sick of it.
Do you remember the way he’d stub out his cigarettes?
Those yellow fingernails.
And the formica, jesus, sticky as a week old corpse.
Get Tony Robinson on that, get bloody Time Team.
No, get what’s-her-face off Silent Witness.
Do some digging, you’d find half his good ideas buried under there. Never started.
Och, this table. It make my eyes feel seeck just lookin’ at it.
A’ willnae miss it.
Him though, I’ll miss him.
Grey hair, yellow fingernails, old coat.
I’ll miss him.
In the southern sky, the three dogs of the huntress.
The first, the fastest, tipped by the pole star, straining at the leash.
Symbolising impatience, hurry, imperfection.
The second behind. Its third and fourth paws our sister planets, waxing and waning, never stepping forward.
Symbolising caution, prudence, cowardice.
The third at her back, leash slipped. The stars that fell last year.
Its teeth raised to her neck.
Symbolising war, betrayal, ending.
In the mornings, the rising sun runs along her blade, but she vanishes before it strikes her husband’s heart.
[In Romanian mythology, the Strygă is a vampiric witch created by the untimely death of an unmarried girl, who later returns to consume the flesh of her family. The bite of a Strygă, untreated, turns its victim inexorably into a monster.]
They came for her in the dark
bit deep into her soft flesh
and she changed.
We locked her in the tower by day
and she roamed the necropoli by night.
The peasants loved and feared her in equal measure.
A priest arrived carrying a cross of dull gold.
She welcomed him to her chambers
adjusted her hair.
The stable hands found secreted
a barrel full of horses’ teeth.
She wept and complained that
the sinks always stank of meat.
A mercenary came, grey of hair
eyes of salt and bone.
He left a finger and thumb from his right hand
and an antique blunderbuss
bent violently out of shape.
She bemoaned her loss and
licked flushed lips
worn ragged from chewing.
The kitchen complained of
a plague of flies.
The seamstresses found maggots
woven into their dresses like fine thread.
She lay abed and spoke
of dreams of a sullen city
ringed by echoing towers.
The peasantry swarmed the gates
with empty bellies
and overflowing demands.
Arrows descended from on high
and the dogs slept soundly.
She tossed and turned
in the garden hammock.
A vase shattered.
Shards sketched red lines
across the hollows of her skin.
Soldiers came at dawn
the door splintered
swords scoured the corners of the room.
The tower lay barren
all that hungering eyes found
strewn and strung from rafters
were the polished skulls of owls and
the shrunken, withered feet of bats.
How lovely these journeys into quiet
every footfall soft against the tilted steps
that lead up to where the old herb garden was
to the grove where nine birch trees stand
the martyrs of the revolution
in the dining hall, the monks move in a silent dance
their plates laden with garlic mushrooms and a sermon from Cremona
the ex-abbot drinks dessert wine by the fire and talks to a nun
who has come to pray her cancer into the embers
outside in the mornings
the organist, whose name is Love
places holy sounds
to shuffle the footsteps of the boys
back to school
When you came down the hill
you carried your burdens with you
the lights of the house soft in the dark
windows pressed against the night like mouths
tree branches framing the sway of your shoulders
and the wrecked
red frame of that old bicycle
a wheel listing
slipping on the cold black ice
the water runs slow here
thick with memories
eddying deep past the grey slump of the mills
when you were younger
our footsteps stitched the fields at dusk
we kissed with ragged lips
under a moon haloed with barn owls
we were guardians of our own country
held vigil in cricket pavilions candles flickering
as we listened for the sound
of gates swung shut by horse thieves
morning cold rubbed your knees popsock-red
as we shoved frosted toes down the lane
pushing the patent leather boats of our feet
sluggish into schoolrooms
that stank of chalkdust
where even the light was lazy
as it cradled your head
against the name-carved desk
I walked you home
we wondered how there would be
space for anyone else in our lives
we made a joke of it
I hugged you
your sharp bones and
your hair wet with woodsmoke
behind us in the trees
small things moved
fleeing the ghosts of your ancestors
who slid between the trunks grey-skinned
waiting for us to turn our eyes back upon them
My current novel, The Shipwright and the Shroudweaver is the story of two old lovers fleeing the aftermath of a war which has destroyed everything they hold dear, and trying to build something better in the ashes. It combines themes of love and sacrifice in a queer, high fantasy universe where the characters make difficult, human choices in a world of magic and folklore.
For publication enquiries, contact Jamie Cowen, The Ampersand Agency.
Forest Secrets is a curated journey through a foreign woodland, an expedition report from the edges of myth. It's told monthly via dispatches of writing and art from Rafael Torrubia and Rowan Heggie.
You can subscribe from as little as £3 a month by clicking below.
Thank you for the marrow
(from your bones)
it was sweet
but not as sweet as the edges
(of your smile)
which peeled off
thank you for the little
(between my teeth)
they were soft
but not as soft
(your last soft breath)
against my cheek
thank you for
(your delicate hands)
your expansive gestures
which rendered down
In all things the north wind blew
and in all things we felt it
its teeth on our shoulders
as we shuffled beneath the bulk
of our dead gods
we spat on our hands
wound blue rope tight
against raw knuckles
the travois caught on rocks
we broke them
when we could not
the children lifted them
and we moved forward
ice on our lips
we walked the wet black of the earth
and imagined that there might be trees
on the horizon
Bridport Prize Shortlist, 2021
Jupiter Artland Poetry Prize, 2016
Jupiter Artland, Inspired To Write, 2015
Bridport Prize Finalist, 2012
Writer of the Month, The Fiction Shelf, 2011
Top Ten Writer of the Year, National Galleries of Scotland, 2010
Arvon Foundation Creative Writing Fellowship, 2009
Unpublished Writer of the Year, National Galleries of Scotland, 2008/2009
Eccles Centre Postgraduate Research Award in North American Studies, British Library/British Association for American Studies
Departmental Research Scholarship,University of St Andrews
St. Andrews University Students’ Association Teaching Awards, Twice Nominated for Best Tutor
Bonarjee Research Essay Prize,
‘Culture from the Midnight Hour: A critical reassessment of the Black Power movement in Twentieth Century America.’
University of St Andrews
M. Litt. With Distinction: ‘Slavery, Symbols and Song – The Importance of the African-American Slave Spiritual in the Civil Rights Protest Songs of the 1960s.’
University of St Andrews
‘Rhetoric, Reality and Memory in Abolitionist Boston.’
University of St Andrews
Congrats on finding your discount code. Subscribe to my Patreon and email email@example.com with the subject line 'Bat-thief' for your unique reward.
half the song is tone
and half the song is body
half the body is a shift into grey
and half is
remembering to blossom
all the song is breath from
on the cut of the moon
dipped against night
stitched against the lungs
against the raised chest
and the arc
of the inhale
all the song is voice and all
voices shift through grey
stepping between the black
of the page, and the white
of the teeth
the turn of the tongue
and the tone of the turn of the tongue
of the arc
of the body
and the breath
shifting into grey
The smell of coffee in the cup
The cliché, I know, I know.
But before that, the smell of grounds in the cupboard.
The cedar tang of the wood.
And behind that the smell of the spices that escaped.
Of curry, of ginger, of Christmas cloves.
Scattered like unhammered nails.
The smell of the sun on the windowsill.
the green of the basil expanding to fill the light
hot paint on the fence
burnt rock gravel and the dusty
shift of the starlings
coffee in the cup
but before that
hedgerows unfolding outside
honeysuckle hanging like spiderweb
over the gasoline trail of dirt bikes
cutting down country tracks where the skylarks sing
over the malted heat of the barley fields
into the cool, sweet purple
of the evening dusk
The north winds used to find her on the old cart road, her shawl pinned back against the curve of her skull and her lungs rattling with the ice that hung on the edge of the wind.
She walked the black earth of the track half by memory, half by the ruts her feet had worn in the years gone by.
Thin soles dancing around sheep shit and gull feather.
We opened the door to her every year, rolled the coals in the embers and let her cough small damp gasps into the belly of the stove.
She talked little, her fingers knuckling over the frayed hem of her skirt, and we let them wander, happy to see the shape of her against the shadow of the flame.
She rose only once, to look at the photo on the mantel, to turn it against the light. Watching the faded shapes that lingered behind the bubbled glass.
She left soon after that, the door hitting the frame before the chair had stopped swinging.
Picking her way back up the track, back bent against the wind, her bones slowly rolling ever closer to the dark of the earth and the salt of the sea.
The cart always comes from the east, following the sunrise, chasing the first rays of light down the old sheep track, past the stile, still canted and torn by the winter storms.
One axle lilting under the burden and the noise of its wares hollering its arrival long before its iron-shod wheels roll into view over the wind smoothed stones of the hillside.
Its driver perches up front, whistling brightly, as if he held a bird between his teeth. The soft brim of his hat catching the rising sun, letting the light slosh for a minute in its velvet folds.
I open the door as soon as I hear the sway of the axle, the clang of copper pans, that bird-tooth whistle.
The horse’s hooves hold the mud outside the garden path, pin the wind to the stones. Its thick, fly-bitten flanks heaving with the effort of hauling so much junk.
The driver doesn’t ask for much. Spits in the dust, holds a hand out gratefully for a cup of water and some bread.
Touches his fingers briefly against the little of the house and moves on before the last bright rays leave the sill.
She spits and polishes. First, the little duck that her grandma gave her, sitting on the sideboard. Next the silverware, or as much of it as she can stand.
The cloth greys quickly, and blackens after that. She can feel the whole sideboard shaking, cups and plates rattling against each other like skeletons left out in the cold.
The machines have started again, iron claws shearing into the rock of the hillside, tearing loose the grass, the dark earth, the roots that lace it beneath.
Kicking up soot into the sky, all of them.
Give it an hour, two at the most, and that soot will sift down the valley, covering the leaves at first, then the shingles, the sheets on the line, the silverware, and finally, inevitably the duck.
She coughs softly, picks up the little duck and turns him. He can breathe for just now, even if there’s a wee chip on his beak. She gives him a kiss on the top of his head, blushes at herself for doing it, then shakes out her cloth and moves down the line, as above her the busy, moving metal grinds the hills back to dust.
I have a friend. A friend that no-one sees. A friend that lives on the back of my eyelids, who speaks only on the outbreath.
I first met them down by the old shaleworks, a rainy day, and the pool of the pit filled by black water.
They say three boys drowned down there in the 70s. Knocked themselves over larking about, and tumbled down, stone over bone, into that dark water.
They say three boys drowned down there, and mothers tut into their shawls.
They say three boys drowned down there, and fathers tap their pipes meaningfully.
I asked my friend about it on that rainy day, and he answered in the squall of the wind.
His small bare feet toeing the edge of the salt circle. His little blue lips just resting on his face.
I felt sorry for him, standing there above the black water, wet hair drip-dripping down the nape of his neck.
So I took his hand, his cold little bones against my warm palm, and lifted him over the salt and home.
Now, I have a friend. He keeps quiet to himself, tight behind my eyes.
Except on the storm days when the lights flicker and the kitchen tiles sound to the drip-drip-drip of black shale water.
it begins as a house
as house in the swamp
as a house in the haar
as a house anywhere
it begins with a knock on the door
it begins with a shouted hello
and from there it spreads like algae
webbed inexorably over the surface over the surface of our lives
the first act clings to all the acts that follow
and the first scene of the play is never really left behind
our minds hold memories softly on the backs of our eyelids
like sunspots bouncing on the carnival zoetrope
life is a view-master
powered by the sparks from briefly electric meat
it begins as a house
as breath on a window
as dew on the moss
bright and perfect, lingering just long enough
in the light that follows after
the sea captain’s daughter had salt stitched hair
kelp haunted fingers, a gallows-marked neck
her shoulders rolled with the song of the tide
and her boots struck sharp on the old sleeping town
the sea captain’s daughter held the moon in her teeth
whispered words running rat-like
down gutters, down vennels
into the guts of that old seaside town
good folk locked their houses
held fast to each other
their backs shook with the wind
that slapped the shutters, a red-handed lover
held fast to each other
shook with the wind, and more than the wind
the sea captain’s daughter pulled her collar higher
sent the shiver in her hands back out to sea
sang a little song of coral
and darker things
damp were the lips of the sea captain’s daughter
and raw her knuckles under light of the storm
and the watch that called her did not move her
for the sorrow on her back hung like a sou’wester
the skin of a shark slipped over her bones
and the men that came for her
had hands that sought murder
lit with torches held blazing and bright_
the torches spat fire
spat fire in the old town
out over the ocean and into the night
the ship captain’s daughter ran steel over her fingers
over the cobbles of the town
slick, and slickening
sang a song of cat-bone and flint
wiped her blade clean
or clean as blood comes
on these cold nights, in these cold sea-side towns
called out for her father
ringing like a bell
called out for her mother
sighing like a dove
called out for vengeance
soft as starlight
and the good folk of the town
hushed their lips, lidded their eyes
held their counsel
like a dog holds a hare
there was spite in the heart of the sea-captain’s daughter
green as glass
hope in the heart of the sea-captain’s daughter
slight as sadness
her voice slid through the town
slunk like a cat
soared like a weeping bird over tile and tower
kindled a flame in the hill-house
kindled a flame in the bed where her father slept
and the ships slept in the harbour
where boats knocked like babes against their sides
where songs spilt over the wreck of the pier
and her crew waited with wet eyes
waited with wet eyes, and thundering hearts
there was salt stitched in the hair of the sea captain’s daughter
a scar stitched on her brow
a limp stitched in her leg
and hate stitched in her heart
wicked and wending up the hill
her voice like a ragged owl’s call
her tongue bright against the dark
bright against the steering stars
and a flame kindled in the hill-house
and a door unlatched
and the shape of her father against the fire
against the hearth, against the dark
the sea-captain’s daughter held heartsblood in her hand
written on paper, sealed and witnessed
held heartsblood in her hand, thrust against the sky
against the stuttering stars
the good folk of the town turned their faces from the hill
from the gallows
from the graveyard held at its back
from the well-worn track that sent one to the other
turned their faces from the hill
sang pale, coward songs to each other
behind closed doors
the sea captain’s daughter had fire in her feet
a blade in one hand
still wet with wanting
a baby in the other
hushed to sleeping
the shape of her father
a shadow, speaking
the shape of her hope
like a lit wick guttering
a choice that hung on a twist of the gallow’s rope
on the blade in her right hand
or the babe in her left
a choice that hung in the cold night
of that cold sea-side town
a whistle on the lips of the sea-captain’s daughter
a wail like wolves from her crew below
a wave that hits the good folk of the town
that drowns them in bitter battle and blood
and the shape of her father is sorrow
fading in the fire’s light
the sea captain’s daughter has salt stitched in her hair
strands of kelp still haunt her fingers
the mark of the gallows hangs on her neck
but her baby rocks slow by the hill-house fire
and she smiles, soft
soft above the smouldering town
he lies on the stretcher
the bones of his face lightly tanned with his skin
like vellum under lamplight
the soft shadow of his eyes smudged under his brow
remembering the black on the fingers that moved printers’ blocks into place
shapes into speech into stitches into shapes into speech.
his thoughts flicker against the back of his eyes as his lips and teeth seek air, find rubber.
the light washes the room, now red, now blue.
in the corner, my grandmothers knits her hands over tight lips.
if bone could unravel, we’d all be undone.
But it stays
in the glare of the light
like the last filament
before the bulb breaks
down into dark
She works in an office. You know the type, grey wool suit, hair in a neat bob. By the water cooler, little paper cup in reasonably manicured hands.
Wait. I should say, she used to work in an office.
There aren’t really any office now, just their hollow skeletons, gently mouldering down to damp, strung with the cries of investment managers.
We closed most of the offices after the pandemic had run its course.
Didn’t really see the point anymore.
Fired a twnty-one gun salute for Pret a Manger and went on our way.
Nowadays we still go through some of the motions. Little genuflections to capital, performing business. She still wears her grey suit, still types at her keyboard, but there’s earth under her nails.
Once the webcam is off she loses herself in the hedgerows, gathers blackberries, stripes her legs with thorns, stares into the blue of a robin’s egg.
Comes home nettle-stung under the moonlight, every muscle aching, eats a supper of bitter leaves and dark bread, sleeps sounder than she has in years.
The photograph is predictable in many ways. A standard holiday snap. Me and my dad on a donkey.
The donkey has been decorated with typical Spanish restraint. Every inch of its harness is beaded with intricate patterns that shift and click when the flies orbit in little, biting, parabolas.
There are flies because this is Spain, and this is summer, and as my grandmother said, ‘God has to curse a perfect nation to keep it humble.’
My Dad is decorated with typical Dad restraint, which is say he looks like a hotel maitre d’ who has broken loose and stumbled into a disco on his way to freedom.
His eyes are bright and his smile is perfect.
His hair would date the photograph if the pattern on my shorts didn’t already do the job.
I am dressed as all toddlers are dressed, like a sticky potato with big eyes and ambitions. I clutch the donkey’s reins mercilessly.
Everything about the photo is as I remember, except, it is in black and white, which confuses me, because everything about that day drips colour.
after Sheila Dong
autumn will come and the hills will rejoice
mist will fall on their bones and the wet
feathers of birds will stitch a blanket
amongst the damp trees
the earth will thrum with mushrooms
and we’ll gather the last spent cases off the moor
while the dogs bark at the ghosts of grouse
autumn will come and we’ll put our shoulders to barn doors
swollen with the rain
sweep out the old straw and strop the scythes back to sharpness
we’ll stoke fires in the old hall
where the delftware tiles are smudged with smoke
and our knuckles ache on the colder mornings
autumn will come and we’ll admire each others’
pull our jumper sleeves over our hands and set the table
the same size as always
but with a few less places every year
He counts every strand of the net as it slips over the side.
Winces as the hawser bucks and screams in the salt gale and hauls faster.
His eyes scan every frayed twist, every ragged hole where something big has chewed its way loose.
His heart quiets a little as the silver fish start to tumble slickly over the dock.
He starts to count coin in his head as his breathing slows.
It doesn’t last. The wind skirls upwards and the entire ship twists in the gale like a breech-born baby.
The clouds on the far horizon cough ozone greenly into the water and he feels electricity run the edges of his teeth.
It’s two hours back to harbour and the storm walking over the tops of the waves will have him blood, bone and rust, long before that.
He spits on his red raw hands, grabs the net and hauls.
They came at first in ones or twos.
Thin dark boats limping into harbour, oil lamps sputtering on their prows.
Thin boats, slipping into harbour like a skelf under a nail.
Thin boats with thin crews, their gelid moonfaces slick with tallow fat, bobbing on their salt-bent spines like fish on a lure.
Ones and twos at first, but gathering as the tide swelled.
Thickening the scoop of the harbour with their blackwood spars and their foreign songs that hung over the water like the oily smoke from their sputtering lamps.
We stowed their thin bodies as best we could in harbour beds and dockside attics. Listened at night as they sang to each other, as the strange sounds of their speech fell past the rats in the walls.
They were fleeing they said, fleeing an ocean turned black, where the ice-floes boiled to the colour of blood and the fish turned sour from the air in their lungs.
We laughed at them, stocked their holds and wished them well. Watched them sail out and enjoyed the quiet they left behind them.
Thought no more about them, about their thin bones and smoke-slick faces, until the morning that the waters ran black and beyond the sea-wall the ocean was cut with red ice, studded with the pallid eyes of gasping fish who withered in the curdling air.
The closer my family gets to death, the more I think about the shape of that family.
In particular, I think about those family members I never got to meet, and particularly about my grandfather on my father’s side.
Here are the things I know about my grandfather:
That he grew cotton.
That he loved chicken.
That he was bitten by a snake on the thigh.
That he lost an eye fighting fascists in the Civil War.
And that he owned a venencia.
I’ll assume you don’t know, but a venencia is used for pouring sherry.
It is a whip thin piece of metal, flexible as memory (we call this the vastago), with a steel cup at the head (we call this the cubilete).
The vastago used to be made from a whale’s whisker. A shallow, sweet swim.
Nowadays, it’s made from PVC.
The venencia, whiskerless, is used for retrieving sherry from deep within its dark wood barrels.
It goes where it might otherwise be impossible to reach.
When you withdraw the venencia you flip it dramatically as you would your hair in a L’Oreal commercial, and decant it from no less than one metre, into the sherry glass.
Understanding my grandfather feels like becoming a venenciador, reaching back over a great distance, stopping into the darkness, and decanting something bright, strange and unfamiliar on the tongue.
There is a crack in his tooth that flickers when he talks.
He is explaining the cost to me, his parched brown hand shifting over leaflets and paperwork
His voice is soothing in the way that boredom is soothing, in the way that waiting for something leaves a space in which you can’t do anything else.
I try to follow it as he enumerates the efficiency of a plastic urn, the benefits of a rosewood finish, but there is a crack in his tooth that flickers when he talks.
Sometimes a little bubble of spit gets caught there, sparkling like frogspawn.
He opens folders that smell of offices, presses brochures into my hands and slips a pen with a chewed cap between my fingers.
I look at the marks of his molars again and think of that little crack in his teeth, wriggling like wormsign, flickering like a shadow against the bone.
Long after he is gone, and I’ve headed to bed, I lie in the dark, the brochures on the bedside table, my eyelids closed and I imagine his half-smile hanging in the blackness over my bed, white and watchful except for the crack in his tooth that flickers when he talks.
What we learn in the dark remains all our lives
and what we live in the dark lacks shapes we have tongues for
and what I’m trying to say is
becoming yourself is an act of forgetting
what we learn in the dark is archaeology
and the moments we spend there leave traces on our eyes in the day
like spots against the sun
if everything we knew about ourselves could be catalogued
it would lose something in the archiving
our sweetest truths slip like cryptids between the trees
and our regrets dance in the pixels of an untuned camera
what we learn in the dark is to glimpse sideways
to look askance at things we once held familiar
to enter the cathedral by the side door
to skip the crowds
and on approaching the altar
find it bare of anything
but the light falling from old soft glass
Those mornings, when I woke unbidden
when the steam from my breath and my piss misted
because we had let winter into the house unknown
during the night
the streets had drawn close as we slept
wrapped around us in the dark
when we woke
we shrugged them off
in tarmac coils
Brewed coffee in the pot
let it dance black on our lips
watched the pans on the stove
and unfurled our fingers from clenched palms
one by one
when the phone rang we answered angrily
who are you
to come into this life
where the only unwelcome guest
is the cold
The night of the great jailbreak began like any other.
A dun-coloured evening, the streets holding dust and sunflower shells.
The abuelas assembling on the street in the soft black of cats. Exchanging gossip over brown knuckles, grateful that the sweat-stained backs of their husbands were still cooling in the cotton fields.
Little pajaritos all solemnly hung from their doorside hooks.
The abuelas moving like lamplighters with feathered wicks, stringing the street with prisons that sang in liquid, looping tones.
When the first bird slipped the latch, it was barely noticed. By the third, fourth, fifth, their passage could be tracked by the laughter and screams. By the tenth, the twentieth, the abuelas has assembled an army armed with brooms and mantillas to beat them back, but it was hopeless.
The little pajaritos gathered themselves into a sweeping, swirling cloud and, still singing, ascended on the sound of a thousand tiny lungs into the night, leaving behind only the dusty heat of the day, the curses of las viejas and a few disgruntled and disappointed cats.
There is no name for this strip of land.
It has fallen out back of the old hospital.
It has grown, separate, shielded by oaks and rhododendrons.
The kids burn plastic here, in the shadow of the abandoned school.
Within its song of empty windows, yellowed paper.
This space is filled with the shards of other spaces.
A computer case. A ripped dress. A rug that has rotted to centipedes.
It is always wet here.
Always mould green. Moss green.
There is no name for this strip of land.
But buzzards hunt here.
And sometimes, on the wet mulch
and sometimes, beneath the sag of an office chair,
the white strip glimmer of bone.
for Ivor Gurney
He heaves it everywhere he goes.
The thunder of blood beneath the storm.
The fall of blood beneath the rain.
The fall to emptiness,
every night, the valves and chambers
of his heart opening and closing.
relentless relentless relentless
he tries to cure it with walking
tries to silence the blood inside him
by moving his body over the miles
until he’s shaking
the shake of the arms, the shake of the fingers
the shake of the blood
it drives him beyond distraction
he marches to war, and the blood marches with him
he writes music with the sound of machineguns
plays it on cellos, but the sound of the blood persists
he tries to fade it pianissimo
but in the sound beneath silence
there is still sound
his friends try to help him
they leave windows open at night
find him asleep on the sofa
in the morning, wet dog exhausted
the sound of the blood rising with the dawn
always he carries it with him
to the hospital
to its white walls, to the river
to the shallows by the willow
never releasing to flow downstream
four apples, knife split
browned and bruised by
tumbling, tossed into the
dark earth amidst the bamboo canes
a tail-less blackbird follows after, tapping its beak into the mush
‘It’s sair’, he says, ‘Look, it’s sair, it’s bruised where the needle’s gaun in and your chemicals are coming oot. It’s turning ma airm blue.’
‘Ugh. It stinks.’
A WhatsApp group chat.
Titled, slightly ominously, La Familia.
An endless buzz as the notifications come in.
¡Hola! ¿Como estas? ¿Que tal? ¿Que pasa cabron?
An endless parade of nieces and cousins in feria dresses and football tops.
Below it all like a back beat:
la vacuna la vacuna la vacuna la vacuna
Rotted apples in the dark of the garden, half-melted into the fox-soil and strawberry runners.
The fridge glows with yellow syringes and whole-fat milk.
The knife already set out in the quiet.
Ready for one more swing at the apples in the morning.
summer collides with the cornfields
scatters the white tails of deer
over dirtbike trails
the second half of my life will be glossy and riotous
precariously balanced on twigs and fenceposts,
on the green of garden wire
the second half of my life will be stolen strawberries,
centipedes and beetles
slithering down the back of my throat
the burnt fence-post red of dusk and the brick haze of the old school
the second half of my life will be woodlice in the rafters
and the creak of the pine trees under the bulk of the moon
the second half of my life will be
looped over cornfields
duelling skylarks for joy
screeching the heart of my waking
straight into the rising sun
[Selections from cabinet text, National Museum of Scotland]
An electrostatic head, unsigned.
Mounted on an unrelated antique bust.
Scrolled legs, dating from the regency era.
A selection of articulated joints.
Allowed to fall under their own weight
A number of missing attachments.
Pre-Cambrian skull structure.
Flecked with chunks of Pyrite, fool’s gold.
A thousand points of light.
Carried into battle by warriors of the period.
Reflective of the attitudes of the time.
Primarily designed as entertainment.
Not the largest of its kind.
Likely having travelled thousands of miles.
Across the ocean
One hundred and seventy feet of water for every ten of land.
Valuable by dint of its sheer survival.
For though the world is destroyed in one part
it is renewed continuously in another
Prophets in the forms of birds
the branches of trees their hymnal
and their incantations run
down the spines of forests
Prophets in the forms of birds
their wings a quiet clatter against the sky
the dream of them beyond a window
that holds chipped cups
Prophets in the forms of birds
wasp-beaked and quarrelling scripture
out into the branches
down into the leaf-mould
Prophets in the forms of birds
and a weight in the heart like a great black stone
Prophets in the forms of birds
wet plastic, damp boots
a weight in the heart like a great black stone
that bows your trees, your ribs
Fingers on the dial and an empty tone
that suck the pips away
down the phone lines
Replacement clicks, kettle hisses
chipped mugs, grounds in the sink.
fingers on the windows and
prophets in the forms of birds
Worm-beaked in the hedgerows
shuddering into unshaven bodies in bars
flying home booze-soaked and hammer-hearted
Two sugars in the cup
rain in the dark earth
and blood on your lips
Prophets in the forms of birds, leaf-twitched
a tone in the ears and the buzz of distant cutting
a weight in the sky like a long worn coat and branches
that sway beyond lit windows, lit homes
boiled water and stale spices
Prophets in the forms of birds
light-boned and soaked through
cosseting each other in moss robes
licking scarred trees, picking up splinters
a weight in the heart like a great black stone
The Lang Cut Tree stauns on its ain
it disnae fash itsel' wi chatterin'
it disnae hauv a gender tae get het up aboot
it wis never a part o' the patriarchy
the bare bane o' its finger stabs the sky
Sayin', here, See me?
Ah'm deid an' no deid.
Ah'm life and no life
Whit are you?
The Lang Cut Tree has nae e'en
jist the skirlin circles o' veins
opened by the knife o' the wind
it sticks its muckle tae in the grund
Whit are you? Whit have you seen?
Ah've seen the sun bleed copper
Ah've seen the powrie-kissed stanes crack
in the winter frost
Ah've held up the clouds as they poured rain on tae
the sodden backs o' stoic sheep
hoachin up and doon the mountain
Whit are you tae me?
The Lang Cut Tree has nae lugs
jist the skelpit scars o' the worms that
it flings its yin rib against the sky
Whit are you?
Ah've heard the logbone crunch of the longships
The banshee cry of mithers gaun daft
Ah've sucked in the song o’ the sky
Whit are you tae me?
‘I dreamt of wolves last night’, she says, ‘first time.’
Her fingers drum nervously as she speaks.
I sip coffee, lick my lips.
‘I think that’s normal. Everybody dreams.’
She frowns, chases toast crumbs around the plate with a finger.
‘I don’t know. This felt different somehow. Familiar.’
I smile, kiss the top of her head and gather up the dishes.
She leaves for work soon after, aspen trees bending in a summer breeze and her white jacket slung over one shoulder.
I take my time after that, stretch, enjoy the warmth seeping into the room, watch the dust motes dance, hear the slow heartbeat of the house picked out in ticking clocks and the gentle settling of attic beams.
After a while, I open the door to the basement. I slide the key back on top of the bookshelf before I slip slowly down the stairs, feeling them bow and bend beneath me.
It’s where I left it. The bare brick of the basement wrapped around it like a lover’s fist.
I pull the strip light cord and the walls flinch from the snap and buzz, throwing its contours into relief.
The thick swoop of its brow, the hungry curve of its canines.
The skull is beautiful.
I kick off my heels and kneel on the floor in front of it.
My hands shake as I reach for it, but once I make contact, that stops. My fingers run over its hungry curves.
I stare into its empty sockets and let the breath slide out of my lungs, ragged and wet.
The old ache at the base of my spine hums in protest and I tuck my ankles further under my hips, wriggling.
My hair seems loose. I can feel every strand on my head, pressing down terribly.
I want to take it off. All of it. Take my nails and dig under the skin and peel, until all the mess and fuss is stripped away. Until I’m pale, and hard, and beautiful.
I stop my caresses briefly and dig into the pocket of my jeans.
Hair, blood, spit.
Plenty of it if you knew where to look.
People are aggressively biological. I wonder how they stand it. How do they carry it? The sheer weight of it.
All that meat.
I weave the loose strands around the teeth, slick the brow as best I can, my hands steadying as I work.
After that, everything else is simple by comparison. I lift the skull and spit in each eyeball, once. Press my head against the bony ridges and breathed deep.
There are hours until she gets back.
Endless slow hours, which limp past grudgingly.
I sing a bit. I dust. I move things around.
Eventually my voice fades away.
A little later, I forget what it sounded like.
I let its voice in to fill the gaps.
It is a rich thing, thick with the deep forest, nourished on pine and hot blood.
I hear it inside me, and I feel my ribs stretch with the possibilities.
Drop to all fours, run around, let my fingers scrabble against hard things, sink into soft things.
I come to after a while, naked in the hall.
I dress again, re-braid my hair and put dinner on.
Not long now.
I lick my teeth from the back, pushing my tongue forwards slowly.
I like how sharp they feel.
The door clicks as she returns, hair mussed, jacket crumpled.
I meet her in the hallway, hug her breathless.
She sinks into an armchair, kicks her shoes off negligently.
‘Hard day?’ I say.
She shrugs. Her shoulder blades shift.
‘No more than usual. You?’
Her mouth opens on the end of the question and I watch her lips.
‘Quiet’, I say. I flick my eyes down. ‘Better now you’re back. Dinner’s on’.
She smiles at that, but I can see the effort it takes.
I step behind her, run my hands through her tangles and think about lifting it all free.
I let my hands rest either side of her neck and push pressure down through my fingers. I can feel the tension knot and release.
She moans quietly in appreciation.
‘I missed you’, I say.
Her head tips back and I kiss her forehead, letting my teeth just touch her skull. ‘Shall we eat?’
It’s quiet while we do. We’re past the point where we need to fill space.
I pass the time by watching her, the curve of her legs, the quick movements of her fork, the earnest way she leans over her phone.
After dinner, we curl into each other and I feel her breath soften as she drifts off to sleep in front of the flicker of the television.
I run my fingers over the shape of her face, down her spine, over her hips.
As the light fades, its voice returns, pulled up by the white-bellied moon.
I listen intently and it speaks in the sounds of the deep places, the high valleys.
I hear ice on its breath and smell the wet rot of leaf mould.
She stirs in her sleep, and I watch her pulse play against the skin of her throat.
I sigh and I feel it ride my breath into the room.
The outlines sharpen and darken at the same time.
My world becomes stark, beautiful.
She’s a gentle weight in my arms as we climb the stairs and I tuck her in without fuss.
She sleeps deeply, her eyelids batting dreams which flicker fitfully across her brow.
I turn off the bedside lamp and open the curtains to let in the stars.
It’s a warm summer’s night, the garden wall hung with hot-brick scent and the footsteps of prowling cats.
I watch them go about their business for a while and it watches from behind me.
After a time, I hear her snores.
I brush her hair from her face and kiss her gently.
Straighten the covers around her and head downstairs.
Down to the walls, the flick and buzz. The solid sharpness of it in my hands.
It comes back upstairs with me, a reassuring weight in the moonlight.
I can hear its song in my head, feel its weight on my back, the long loping strides of its legs pressed against my own.
Carefully, reverently, I set the skull down on the bedside table and wait.
She stirs, quickly now. Faster than last night and the night before that.
She’s dreaming. Dreaming of running across tight-packed snow, under the jagged shadows of trees.
Of chasing and catching.
Of the copper-kiss of blood and the feel of teeth on meat.
Of strong bones, clean and bright beneath the moon.
I watch her forehead crease, hear her whimpers and reach out a hand to stroke her brow.
I can feel her beautiful skull. Just beneath her worrying skin.
It’s not easy to watch her like this, but I run my tongue across my teeth and think how happy she’ll be once she sees what she can become.
Once she steps out of all the heat, and the weight and the burden.
Once she hears its voice like I do.
I sit next to her as she dreams, and I hold her hands tight.
The things we do for love.
they're burning souls on the edge of the field again
setting blessings and bones loose into
the july sky
sending whiteness to whiteness
leaving the spaces between acrid
with pigeon feather
with the lightness of earth
with the shadow of home
Your teacher means well, even if his programming is archaic at best.
Your teacher means well, even if his stuttering subroutines cause him to draw chalk across the blackboard in long, shrieking swipes, rattled by the cool plastic of his nails.
Your teacher means well, even if his empathy filters were calibrated in Ohio, in 1979.
Your teacher means well, even if his synthi-skin is beginning to tear; bolts and tiny, perfect gears appearing under the ragged edges of his spreading smile.
Your teacher means well, even if he hasn’t been upgraded since the war, even if his ports are crammed with gum and Cheeto dust.
Your teacher means well, even if he can no longer periscope upwards to retrieve basketballs from the gymnasium rafters.
Even if when he powers down a faint light remains behind his eyes.
Your teacher means well, even if there was a boy once who talked back.
Whose gentle features were scattered like birdseed across the grass of the newly renovated Peace and Freedom Park.
It wasn’t a lesson we understood at first, and it wasn’t a skill that took easy.
And you wouldn’t have thought Coach would be the one to teach it. Standing on the pitcher’s mound, zipped up in a maroon velour tracksuit, sweat hanging off the edges of his dishscrubber moustache as birdcall peeped over the morning fields.
We never would have believed him when he said you can catch the sun.
Would have taken him for a liar, if he hadn’t shown us how to wind up a strike and send the whole roiling gaseous orb arcing over the outfield, sizzling the franks in the hotdog stand, trailing the staccato pop of kernels and hot butter.
Would have called him a fool, if we hadn’t seen him brace little Susie Neidermeyer to catch it in the mitt. If we hadn’t watched her stow a little slice of sun in her shorts like a half-time orange.
Coach never talked to us about it again, but every so often you can hear him out in the early morning light, hitting straight sixes out beyond the stratosphere and stealing a little light to carry out into the day.