Sunday, January 25, 2009

Beneath the Veil of Winter Born

Her father strayed from home again that night,

So neighbors took her mother to give birth

And waited for the errant man to come

And watched the snow that piled upon the earth.

That winter night was shortest of them all,

When caul-born child was laid upon the breast

Of woman filled with sorrow and with woe

For husband gone and child aborn unblessed.

The doctor said there’s nothing for concern,

That babies born with covered heads are fine.

He skinned the child of soft, encircling womb

And cut the cord and tied it off with twine.

A child so born had once been thought a boon

To ships that sailed to lands upon the waves,

And sailors paid a fortune for the skin

That kept them from the depths of watery graves.

But when her father learned that she had borne

A veil that hid a face with dark black eyes,

As black as dirt of coal upon his hands,

He hawked onto the snow and made a sign.

“Protect me from the evil eye,” he said,

“Of babies who can steal your dreams at night

And take the sleep from out your lonesome bed

And fill your waking days with fear and fright.”

“Doc should have let her stay there in her bag

To drink that water where she learnt to swim.

He should have left her to the will o’ God

And left us to enjoy the peace o’ Him.”

Yet as a child is wont to do, she grew,

A strange and somber fairy child, they said,

And every night before she went to sleep,

She turned her mind upon their loathsome bed.

The child brought forth beneath the wintry sky,

The shortest day and evening of the year,

Born safe within a lonely veiled cocoon,

Sent mother all her joy, to father -- fear.

With passing of the years the girl grew fond

Of rambling in the hills to learn the ways

Of women who could cut a willow twig

Or blow out fire or take a wart away.

But as she hunted ginseng root for tea

To make a heart beat strong or heal a wound,

She always thought of him whose thought that day

Was that she was the twig who should be pruned.

Her stature grew in magic and in art;

She bent their use according to her will.

To those in need she gave what help she could,

But unto him who bred her -- only ill.

One day as she was digging by the stream

That ran behind the tipple for the coal,

She felt the hair arise upon her neck

And knew that nearby lurked an evil soul.

She heard his jaunty song before she saw

The man of heart much blacker than the seam;

She hid herself from him among the reeds

And willed him to the depths to meet his dream.

He felt the pull of water and of thirst

And need to wash the coal dirt from his hands,

So down he stooped there on the river’s edge

And looked through swirling water to the sands.

Beneath the water’s twist he seemed to see

A babe within a bubble all encased

That moved beyond the reach of his long arms

But strained toward him for watery embrace.

He stretched his arms to grasp the thing he saw,

Said, “Eyes play tricks on me, I know, this day;

Or clouds have come to shadow out the sun

And hide the things of sense from sight away.”

The sand beneath his feet beside the stream

Began to fall then shift and then to run,

And up from out the reeds his daughter rose,

The one whose face was hidden from the sun.

He saw that face reflected in the pool;

Her eyes there darker than the darkest coal

That stained his mind and filled his evil heart,

The waterchild that sucked at his black soul.

He turned and clawed with hands for purchase there

But pulled away the film of soft, smooth skin,

A shimmer that had covered fine dark hair

And held the heart that he had scorned within.

He fell beneath the eddies of the waves

That washed the black of coal from off his face,

And in a bubbled caul he sailed away

Cradled by the fairy child’s embrace.


  1. I've already posted my astonishment to this but Blogger says I need to retry.

    This is astonishing!! It is so rich in the lore and magic of the mountains, things that still exist in its belief and culture! I wish there was a way to get this to Irene McKinney who edited Backcountry!

    To one that has just recently found a "Room of One's Own", AMAZING!

  2. BRAVO!!! It was perfect! Nothing more needs to be said...

  3. I used to work for AOL on a :Writing Board: as a judge and an editor. In my opinion, this would have won first place. Hands down.

  4. Roberta -- Thank you so much for your kind comments! I am truly humbled that you like it and think it represents our mountain heritage and culture. I honestly can't tell you how appreciative I am!

    K.K.--You're my litmus test. Thank you.

  5. Head, shoulders, chest and waist above the norm for narrative poetry. Superb.

  6. Karen, this is absolutely amazing! A wonderful poem, beautifully written with perfect skill. The story and your words gripped me from beginning to end, and I had to sigh in disappointment when it was finished because I didn't want it to finish. Just wonderful!

  7. Karen, this is simply first rate. Haunting, beautiful, tragic. I read it twice--the first time quickly because I just had to know what happened, and the second time slowly to appreciate the words and the form and the imagery. I can't wait to read what you post next!!

  8. Our first daughter was about to be born with a caul. But then the OB breached it on purpose. I wonder if it still counts.

  9. Karen, did you, not too many days ago, call yourself a baby poet? A novice? Or some other such words that don't apply? Fantastic excellent, experienced writing, utterly amazing storytelling. Oh, beautiful!

  10. Dave - thank you for the kind words! This is my first attempt at narrative poetry, so I truly didn't know what to expect when I started writing. This story felt like it just told itself.

    Vesper - I am honored to have you visit here, and I am humbled by your kind words. Your saying that you didn't want it to end is high praise, indeed! Thank you.

    Jennifer - I'm so glad you enjoyed this. I have to say that I wondered how widespread the appeal of the Appalachian folklore would be. Many of the story elements are deeply rooted in this place and our culture. When I was a child, I actually knew people like these, even a woman who could purportedly "blow out" fire if you were burned or remove warts by cutting a branch above them. People always say, "Write what you know." I think it worked in this case. And I'm so glad you liked it! Thank you.

    Cat-- baby poet, true! Every time I write something I think it's probably a fluke. After reading your latest, I know I have to work, work to be worthy of such talented people. Thank you for your kind words and for encouraging this fledgling.

  11. Jason -- he stole her caul? How dare he? Doesn't he know how valuable this is? What have doctors come to? You don't suppose he found a sailor, did he? ;)

  12. Hi, Karen. Returning your visit. I came at a good time!

    This is beautiful!

    Generally, I don't read much poetry (because I have a hard time understanding it). But this not only captures a feeling of culture, with its cadence and word choice, it flows like a story, and I found myself caring about the girl.

    Very well written - if you don't mind the opinion of a novice.

    Have a good day.

  13. Hi again. It is a tribute to your talent that you have made the culture accessible even to an outsider! (I remember first looking into the symbolism of the caul when I read "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" so some of what you referenced was familiar, but not all.)

  14. You're not fledgling, Karen. This poem has a rich narrative drive, and is filled with haunting imagery. The whole idea of the "veil" is absolutely inspired.

    I loved the fact that even as they each found the other wretched, they shared the same dark heart. Wonderful ending--gave me shivers!!

  15. Bevie - thanks for stopping by. This story just seemed to flow, which makes me think it was a tale that wanted telling! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    Jennifer - I had forgotten about Francie. David Copperfield and Lord Byron were born with cauls, too...good company!

    I am glad you found this accessible; the thing I really like about this community is that no matter how dissimilar our exterior lives may be, we can share them and know that we're more alike than we are different.

    Sarah - Thank you for coming by! I admire your work so, and to have you read and comment on mine truly honors me.

    You are absolutely right about their dark hearts -- fitting that they were finally joined.

  16. i echo the comments above....this is a bone-chilling tale, and i particularly love how it pulls together elements of your local folklore - it is not a region whose legends i am familiar with - but like any well-told myth, there is something universal to connect with even as the reader (in my case, anyway) is discovering a new culture. (i've always found myth/folklore a surreptitiously insightful, and definitely the most enjoyable, way to learn about any society, past or present.)

    all that said - i am with you – some poems (especially one as full and intricate as this) are never finished. i don’t know if you were considering revisions to wording or rhythm or theme – but you’ve created such a rich and layered narrative - you can work it any direction you choose. (which is not to say i think anything about it needs revising – i just understand that feeling – the little voice whispering "almost...not quite...what about...”)

  17. I loved reading this! I've always wanted to know more about the myth of cauls. As Jason already said, our firstborn would've been born with it, but my lovely OB opened it to let the fluid drain. She was concerned that I would've torn more (ouch!) if she hadn't released that pressure. I am thankful for that! :) But part of me wishes she had come into the world with the sac intact... (Not that Jason and I are into mystical, artistic experiences or anything... nah....) ;)

  18. Great, great writing, Karen! I was drawn into this so completely. Just beautiful! I look forward to more of your work.

    Also, thank you so much for your recent visit and lovely comments... and Happy belated Anniversary! :)

  19. Joaquin Carvel - Welcome, and thank you so for your comments. You are right about the revision process. I question every decision, especially with poetry. I haven't yet written anything that feels finished. I have been posting here the "almost readies" and as I see them in this sort of media (don't they look different posted here?), I am fiddling with them. Having a community such as this to provoke more thoughts and ruminations truly helps the process.

    I have always been a lover of mythologies, too, and you are right-- we can find something of ourselves and the human condition in all of them.

    Aine - I am happy to connect with someone who has experience of the caul! I've been fascinated by them since childhood. It was called a veil around here, and I had a vision of a child being born with a veil the likes of which we see on brides or widows -- a very romantic picture. If you google "caul", you'll see the reality -- not pretty at all!

    Don't blame the poor OB for rupturing your daughter's caul. Woman of science, she might have missed the significance! Besides, that baby wore the veil! Watch her closely; she's magical! (Of course, you knew that!)

  20. Calli - Welcome, and thank you for your comments. I know you're "into" mystical, magical, too! Thanks for the anniversary wishes. We were snowed in -- quite a different story than it would have been oh, so long ago! LOL

  21. Oh Holy poesy. I rarely care for rhyming because so few do it so well. But I'm a good reader, read this aloud as I read it the first time and was so moved that I can't really think of any rhyming poem that I have ever liked better.

    To me, rhyming poetry must be read aloud poetry. That's what shows the scheme clearly to work, because rhyming may enhance the poem, but it must NOT get in the way of the poetic flow and narrative. Your rhymes did not get in the way one time. Thank you.

  22. At first I was daunted by the length of the piece, but once I began to read, I was so drawn in to the tale - so captivated, that it just flew by! You are a real talent.


  23. Just saw in your profile that you are a fan of Peter Robinson. I have read every one of his books (except the most recent). I've never seen him mentioned anywhere on the blogs before. I also read some of your other choices.


  24. Christopher - Thank you for the nice comments on the rhyme of the poem. I have a hard time making my work NOT rhyme, yet I know that it can become singsong and distracting. Somehow, this one just wrote itself, if that makes sense. I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

    Kat - I must have been on your site while you were here! As for the length of the poem, you're right -- it is daunting. I can't believe I wrote a poem that long, but as I said before, it felt as if it had to be told.

    As for reading -- I love British or Scottish detective fiction. I find authors and read everything they write. There are many other good ones I could mention. Nice to find someone else who is a fan, too.

  25. Hi, Karen! For some reason, I wasn't able to access you through the link you left at my site, so I googled your blog name. It's so nice to come over and read your beautiful blog. Thanks for the award. I look forward to reading more. This is indeed a magical poem. I love the narrative form and the story keeps me on the edge of my seat. Beautiful work!

  26. Thank you, Julie. I'm glad you liked this, and I'm grateful you stopped by. Sorry you had to go to the trouble to find me (apparently, a family member did the same thing..grrr!) Thanks for the comments. You're one of my favorites.

  27. i am so so happy i came here (by the assest of GeL). wonderful story, so well written. i wish i could put a good enough melody to it, an folk tune... but i am not good as mozart to come with that stunning poem.
    thank you.

  28. Karen,
    I'm astounded that this is your first narrative poem. You must write glorious prose as well.
    I was roped in and mesmerized. First-rate!

  29. utopianfragments - Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you like the narrative. My sister and I used to put lots of poetry to music. I still sing Robert Frost every once in a while. :)

    GeL - I'm glad you liked it. Once I got going, this just sort of poured out, if you know what I mean. I started it -- or false started it dozens of times, but finally, I knew what it had to say. I'm really glad you liked it.

  30. Usually, i'm not a big fan of poetry, but this one just grabbed at me. Had more than a bit of a songish feel too it, but that only enhanced it, rather than took away. Great work on this, love it.

  31. Thank you, ChaotixLord! I'm surprised that someone has found this buried in the depths of my blog. It is a sing-song rhyme, but somehow, I couldn't tell it any other way. I'm glad you liked it.