Friday, December 18, 2009

Beneath the Veil

A Poem for a Winter's Night

December 21 is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, which throughout history has been considered a day of beginnings and endings, of rebirth and reversals. For me, it's my birthday. As a child, having a birthday four days before Christmas wasn't much fun. The day got lost in the bustle of the holiday. As an adult, I've come to love the day as a milestone for which I am grateful. Every year of my life has been enriched by the love of my ever expanding family and friends and my love of the beauty of this earth.

Having said that, I want to say a few words about the poem that follows. Yes, it was inspired by my birthday, and yes, it has some elements of autobiography, but few - very few. One reason for my poetry secret is this poem. I love it. It is one of the few poems I've written of which I wholly approve, and yet, it is the one poem I could never share with my parents. There is too much autobiography in it for them to be able to get past the facts and just enjoy the story.

So, in honor of my father, who would feel so hurt by this, let me tell you the truth behind the tale: I was born on December 21. My father was not at home that night. When I was born, my face was covered by a thin veil of skin commonly called a caul. According to legends, children born with a caul are supposed to have psychic powers.

That's it -- the autobiography behind the poem. The rest is pure fiction set in the Appalachian hills and hollows I so love. I posted it here last year, but as most of you weren't with me then, I post it again in honor of the solstice and my own birthday. I hope you enjoy my secret!

Beneath the Veil

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. O, what a tale for a dark winter's night! I am awed that he should have sailed away holding the caul he scorned. Wonderful story-telling in the old manner. Happy birthday, Karen!

  2. I love the story. The narrative is perfect in pitch and timber and builds brick by brick from the first word to the last. I can see why you wholly approve of this. It isn't often we run a piece that is without flaw in our eye as the writer of it but I tell you Karen it is without flaw to the reader as well.

    I was listening just by chance to the Hut on Fowl's legs from Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky as i read and the two complimented each other quite nicely.

    May your birthday pass with all the wholeness of the ending season and the promise of the richness of the coming one.

    Be VERY well

    OK got to go The Sex Pistols just popped up doing MY Way

  3. You are more than entitled to feel total approval for this poem. It is an absolute gem. And obviously so important to you that I am surprised you felt able to share it. It does you great credit, as does the sharing, as does the remark that it's in honour of your father. It is a fabulous achievement, I cannot praise it too highly.

  4. Karen, what an amazing poem/story! My granddaughter was born on December 24 and we try to celebrate her birthday twice: on Christmas Eve and halfway through the year.

    I hope you have an awesome, peaceful, wonderful birthday. I love that it's on the Winter Solstice! Love & Blessings, dear sister poet/friend!

  5. What a tale of witchery! It's a very strong ballad in the great old tradition.

  6. Wonderful story and a great telling of it. Magical in spirit meaning. Well done

  7. Interesting subject indeed. Do you still have your caul?

  8. What a beautiful tale. Reads like a literary classic. Thanks.

  9. Karen, I remember this from last year. I don't want to say that the second time is better, because I was pretty damn impressed the first time. You're right to be proud of it.

    I feel in you that same impulse from Sarah's story--the need to protect the feelings of one's parents. Your dedication to your father is all the more precious because of it.

    Happy birthday!

  10. Straight out of the old ballads... I heartily approve. It is the toughest thing to write about subjects so personal as family, but also the most important sometimes. It takes courage to say it and skill to make it beautiful, and you do both quite well. Be proud. :)

    And, happy early birthday! Lucky to be on a solstice... best I can manage is nine days after an equinox. :P

  11. Karen- to run a narrative this long without one single hiccup is amazing. To read this in a book on a winters night would drive one to the next page in ravenous hunger. I'm jealous. ~rick

  12. I understand the instinct to secrecy. People miscontrue, misunderstand and read into far too much. Sometimes it's as if you have no right to the material of your own life, just because you happen to share that life with others. This is lovely, like one of those haunting Scottish or English ballads that just step over the line into the supernatural. I'm thinking of oone about a jilted woman who kills herself and her baby and then confronts her lover on his way home from his new girlfriend's house and tears him to bit. "On ilka side of Mary's stile, of Willie she has hung a share." Or 'Down by the Greenwood side' about an unmarried mother who murders her twin boys and then sees them playing ball and they report her coming sojourn in hell. Like your poem they touch some deep well of stories that speak to a part of our mind we don't always access. Happy Birthday and Happy Christmas.

  13. Chris - Thanks for the well-wishes and all the good conversations.

    TWM - Thank you for the compliments and the good wishes Now I'm off to find that music! Let's both stay well.

    Dave - Thank you for continuing to stop by and for your kind remarks.

    Marion - I'm sitting here looking at a two-foot snowfall and thinking about how you'd love this! It is breathtakingly gorgeous! Thanks for the birthday wishes.

    John - That's just what I hoped to create. Thanks!

    Casseiopia Rises - Welcome, and thank you!

    Sean - Ew! No!!! LOL (oh, and welcome!)

    Gerry - Thanks so much! That's what I hoped to achieve.

    Jen - I think you, Sarah, and Cat may have been the only ones who did read here last year -- and you were my first reader. I'm sorry we lost you to circumstance, but I'm so happy to know you're still there. Hope you're able to dig out of the big storm. Thanks!

    Joseph - Thank you to someone whose work I so admire. Thanks for the wishes.

  14. I liked this work very much it is clear you know how to write extremely well. This work seems like something that could be turned into a song that someone like the Eagles would sing.

    Thank you very much for sharing.

    Tom Bailey

  15. Rick - Such a nice thing to say! This was one of the very few poems I've written that just sort of took over and wrote itself. Thanks for your very flattering comments.

    Mairi - I hadn't thought of it in years, but your comment brings back a poem I read as a child - Old Christmas Morning by Roy Helton. It, too, has a double murder and a spirit encountered on the way from the graveyard. Its setting seems to be the Appalachian hills or at least close enough to home for me to sound authentic. Of course the irony of its happening on Old Christmas was an added bonus. Thanks for the comparisons and for bringing that one back to me.

    Tom - Welcome! As a child, my sister and I used to set poems to music all the time. If this weren't a secret poem, I'd have her help me now!

  16. Oh Karen~ you've blessed us with another great writing. Such a personal journey for you. I understand the secrecy too. It can be difficult to explain to family what your intentions are/ were.

    Happy Birthday~ Hope your day is filled with joy and your holidays are blessed.

  17. Absolute speechless, so please excuse. Thank You tonnes for sharing this again else i'd have missed a pearl.

    Many more happy returns of Dec 21st Karen. Wishing you a wonderful day.

  18. I enjoyed your narrative poem very much. A cauled baby is a very special baby.

  19. Karen, I remember when you posted this last time, and I was enthralled then as I am now. In rereading now I just got chills over and over as I read each stanza. It truly is a masterpiece this poem. And since it is now the 21st, let me wish you a fantastic birthday full of the light of this day and season. Happy happy birthday my dear Karen.

  20. Michelle - Thank you for the birthday wishes and for your comments on the poem and situation. :-)

    swapnap - Thank you for the comments and birthday wishes! These connections have come to mean a great deal to me.

    Emerging Writer - I love your blogname! Aren't we all? Thanks for reading and commenting.

    Cat - You, Jen, Sarah, and K. - I met you all at Jason's big party and we've been fast friends ever since! It's been a blessing to me to know you. Thanks for the birthday wishes and your very welcome comments! Have a wonderful Christmas, Cat!

  21. Truly inspired Karen. :) Thank you for sharing your secret.

    Our younger daughter was born on the 20th. I wonder how much she will feel lost in the bustle too.

  22. Oh, I can hear this one read by firelight, perhaps a light harp in accompaniment. Such an enchanting story, Karen!
    Happy Birthday!

  23. Did you say your poem was too long, Karen? No, it isn't - not at all. It is long enough to tell its story, and it is a pleasure (if a goose-pimply one) to read. Thank you for sharing it. Happy birthday and Happy Winter Solstice!

  24. WOW WOW WOW....such a dEEEEEEEEEEElite to read..shortest day of year for longest poem of the day...great....anyways Karen have a great day...enjoy it all and take it all in...and guess what it starts all over again with a new beeeeeeeeeeeeeeginning...happy holidays also...take care...oh ya happy BD too

  25. First of all, Happy Birthday!!!

    Oh, this is a wonderful tale. I first heard of a caul from the film "Oscar and Lucinda" (I've yet to read the book). Fascinating stuff. So, are you psychic?

  26. Jason - Thanks. Be sure to give her a gift wrapped in birthday paper. Never - under any circumstances - let her open a Christmas gift early!! (sounds like a bitter woman, huh?) LOL

    Jeanne Iris - Not exactly on the bus (kart?) but I couldn't let it pass. Thanks. Merry Christmas!

    Sandra - Thank you, Sandra! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    Wayne - Thanks for your very enthusiastic comments! I've been looking around at your places and I will be back more after the holidays.

    Willow - I've been told I must be psychic at times. The things others think make me psychic just make sense to me. Some things I wish I didn't know!

  27. Happy Birthday!
    Just finished the Celestine Prophey.
    Got energy reading this poem. Those woods you entered sound like something from a Grimm's Fairy Tale. Or was that Aesop Fable's?

    Nice blog. Will have return before the next solstice.

    michael j

    Conshohocken, PA USA

    michael j

    Conshohocken, PA

  28. Truly, a poem for the Winter Solstice, and for repeating around fires long and late into the coldest night. That was a wonderful, chilling narrative that held me throughout. Superb!

  29. Karen, this is one of the most beautiful poems I've ever read. It held my interest from beginning to end, with its incredible story.

    Have the happiest of birthdays. I just had lunch with my oldest son who celebrated his 39th birthday on the 17th. We are in the San Francisco area now but, when he was born, we lived in the Lexington/Concord area of Massachuesetts and left at 5AM, in a raging snowstorm, for Chelsea Naval Hospital, some 40+ miles away. Our car broke down about 5 miles from the hospital, fortunately in front of a gas station. The owner drove us the rest of the way in his truck which had a snow plow on the front!

    Thanks for stopping by my blog!

  30. First, greetings & salutations. Second, Happy Birthday!!! Third, stumbled onto your blog from a comment you left on someone else's and I will return to read when I have more time to devote to your words. I am looking forward to it!

  31. I believe this was the first poem of yours that I ever read, Karen. Bravo! It's one of my very favourites.

  32. Karen, this was the first poem of yours that I ever read. I was directed to you by Rachel Westfall and I've been coming back ever since.
    Funny though, my impression of who you are from this poem was so different than who you turned out to be! It is one of your greatest works (and that is saying something).

    My best wishes to you and your family for a very Merry and Blessed Christmas!


  33. a very interesting poem Karen, don't blame you not wanting to show it to the folks, but glad you shared it here

  34. First of all a very happy belated birthday Karen, so sorry it's a day late! I was celebrating my best friend's birthday with her yesterday, you share the same day.

    Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful poem with us. It's a perfect story for a winter's night. It's a story I could imagine my Irish father telling to his 7 kids around an open fire. (Btw he can cure warts too).

    You're right to be proud of writing this. I know I'll read it more than once and feel I know you better after reading your words.

    Have a wonderful Christmas Karen with your loving family.

  35. Happy Birthday, Karen! I'm so glad that you were sent here to this earth. This is a magnificent poem, and I can see why you approve of it. So do I! In a big way! Wonderful lines...wonderful meaning. The images are spectacular. The voice...again, I love your voice so much.

    I'm right there with you about writing poems and worrying what the family will think of them. I never understood my family's reactions and still "hide" many poems from them. I'm starting to understand their reactions a little more, though.

    Like, for example, if my daughter makes a film based on events or locations of her life...but added a psycho mother to the plot, I would feel the same way my family feels. Haha! And I'm a poet who should know better. It might be based on reality, but poetic license is not always real. Still...when we see ourselves somewhere in it, even if it's just our house, it feels like it is us. It can be sticky sometimes.

    Have you read Fred Chappell's book of poems that came out this year? It's called "Shadowbox." You would love it. He "inlays" poems inside of poems and does some amazing things with form. He creates sonnets with the sestet "nesting" inside the octet. I've been studying it this year and am blown away. Google "Fred Chappel Shadow Box" and take a look if you haven't seen it yet.

    Have a beautiful Christmas!

  36. How wonderful to enjoy a birthday on the solstice, a beautiful day of the year. As a pagan, this poem engrosses me - it's wonderful, and it was a pleasure to find. Thankyou...

  37. Hi Karen, An amazing account, I was glued to both chair and screen. Well done on such an absorbing piece. Thanks.

  38. Like the way it has the feel of a folk tale. It has a real archetypal feel to it, as if the bones of the story are ancient.

  39. This poem gets my "Gee, I wish I'd written that" award. "She always thought of him whose thought that day/Was that she was the twig who should be pruned". This is truly poetic - it would make a great folk song.

  40. I loved this as much the second time around, Karen. I'm only sorry I didn't get over yesterday to wish you a happy birthday! I'm sorry for the belatedness of my message, but I hope you spent a beautiful day with loved ones. And in the home and surroundings you so love, and honor with your words.

    I'm in awe of the flawless rhythm and momentum of this poem, which builds to the pure perfection of that last stanza. And in the water, something else carries it beyond our eyes and reach.

  41. I love the way you have woven this out of your own story to creat a personal myth. WOnderful.
    and happy birthday!)
    hugs, sarah)

  42. Fascinating story, Karen!
    The winter solstice is a special day to be born, just as the world turns back toward the sun. (At least for us northerners.)

  43. first of all, happy birthday, Karen - I hope you'll be here for quite a number of years to come with your spirit and the magic of your poems.
    I think I was here among your followers a year ago, but I seemed to have missed this gem. this is truly haunting and well composed.

    I know of the phenomenon you describe, they are called 'children born in the sac' over here.
    I was born on the 23 of December, so I totally can relate to your childhood memories about birthday and Christmas colliding.
    Merry Christmas to you and your beloved ones.

  44. Micael - Welcome to my site, and thank you!

    Titus - Thanks, Joanne! Have a happy Christmas! (Folks, go to Titus to see what it's all about!)

    Carmen - What a great story you have to tell! Much more fun in the telling than the doing! I'll "see you" after Christmas!

    Jana - Thanks, and Merry Christmas!

    purpleplatitudes - Welcome! Thanks for stopping by.

    Rachel - It doesn't seem possible that a year has passed since this started. I do remember that you were one of the first I read (and how envious, now blessed I am to read your work).

    Kat - My dear friend! Yes, this poem is not me, but I am in it for sure, as surely as the mountains and the folk wisdom of my ancestors are in me. I think one of the reasons I like this poem is that it has less of me in it than most of my others. That makes them harder to write because they're more revealing.

    Have a wonderful Christmas. I look forward to reading all about it!

    Niamh B - Thanks for stopping by. Unfortunately, the family just wouldn't believe I don't harbor some ill will - silly as that may be. I love my father more than anything, and he's nothing like this black-hearted person! As a matter of fact, he serenaded me on my birthday with a song he's sung for me every birthday that I can remember. Now, how wonderful is it that I have an 85 year old father who still serenades me? Couldn't be better.

    Margaret - Thank you, dear! I hope your Christmas is wonderful, too! Enjoy the markets and all the festivities!

    Julie - I have to laugh at your comment. I wonder what Stephen King's mother thought? LOL

    I will certainly look up Fred Chappell (as soon as things calm down here a little!) You always have great recommendations, and you haven't steered me wrong yet!

    Have a wonderful Christmas! I hope you get to see Amber.

  45. Wow ! Karen, that was real different and dark and delicious.Wonderful,kept me captivated from first to last line.What a tale!
    Thanks Karen, Merry Christmas!

  46. MAB - OOh, I like that, too "Queen MAB" -- anyway, I thank you for visiting and for your comments! I had fun at your place!

    Liz - Thank you! It's nice to write something with sort of an old feel to it. Quite a contrast to most of my modern life! Thanks for your comments and for stopping by.

    Dominic - Thanks! That's just what I had hoped.

    Argent - Your comment has me smiling ear to ear! Thanks.

    Sarah - Thanks for your wishes and comments, Sarah. I actually had a day off work (snow day!!) and was able to enjoy just being home with my husband. We actually had to abandon ship over the weekend because of power outages, so I spent the weekend with my parents (both of whom I love very much contrary to this poem)!

    Merry Christmas, dear Sarah!

    Selchie/Sarah - Thank you! Merry Christmas!

    NanU - Thanks! Let's enjoy the lengthening days!

    SzelsoFa - Happy Birthday to you! I hope you enjoy a wonderful birthday and blessed Christmas!

    TFE - Glad you finally slid in on the kart! Thanks for your very nice comment. Merry Christmas! (and thanks for the ride)

  47. Hi Karen,

    Very wonderful and pleasantly done... O,Belated Happy Birthday!!!:)

    >Hey, I've left you a simple present on my blog... hope you like it...!!!:D

    >>Merry Christmas!!!:D


  48. merry xmas to you and yours, karen :)

  49. What a marvelous ballad. You should rightly be very proud of it. Totally engrossing and very entertaining. Thank you very much!

  50. Karen, I would never forget this poem - it made such a deep impression on me the first time I read it! What an exquisite pleasure to read it again...
    Although I missed your birthday, I would still like to send you my best wishes for many happy returns of the day.
    I hope Christmas is filled with joy for you and your family and that the New Year brings you the most wonderful things.

  51. I loved it's legendary feel, and the rhyme was so natural, not forced. I have a hard time accepting that in my poems.

  52. Beautiful, simply beautiful. Having raced forward to catch the next word, I'll go back now and savor them more slowly. A treasure, indeed.

  53. This is a terrific poem - so strong in lyric that I have to withdraw at some points.
    Happy for you that you could write something you fully approve of - writing poems is like giving birth, don't you think?

  54. Kelvin - Thanks for your wishes and words! I'll come to your place directly (as we say here in the South)!

    Wolfie - So happy to see you! Happy New Year (I'm late in getting back here), and thanks for stopping by.

    Lesser Weevil - Welcome, and thank you!

    Vesper - Thank you, dear friend. I wish all of the same for you and your family. Thanks for sticking with me this year!

    Dianne - Thank you for reading and for your comments. As I said before, this poem seemed to write itself once I began. It was the most "fun" writing I've done because it just appeared as if my hand couldn't move fast enough. Thanks for being a new reader here. I'm going to do my best to make it to your place. (Resolution!)

    Char - Thank you for such kind words! (and thanks for stopping by)

    Rhett - I'm pondering your comment - a good thing or bad? Hmmm...well, I birthed this one, now I'm stuck with it! Ha! Thanks for stopping by and for following.