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Beyond Borderlands is a forum for the artistic and critical exploration of topics relating to esotericism, paranormality, and the culturally weird.


The Robotic Poet Reads Bashō

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 23 September 2014 23:24 Written by Stewart C. Baker Tuesday, 23 September 2014 23:09

The robotic poet (who refers to herself in the third person, for reasons which may become clear) has been reading translations1 of Bashō, and has discovered two things in his work:

First, that our understanding of reality is largely a consensus agreement.

Second, and more importantly, that poetry can serve as a gateway to an infinite number of realities.

It may be tempting to attribute these little epiphanies to the vagaries of translation—to differences in interpretation and idiosyncratic syntax choices. (The robotic poet’s children were of the opinion that we all saw a single reality, but children have not lived. Not fully. The robotic poet herself remains convinced there is more going on.)

However, Bashō’s famous “old pond” haiku makes the truth as clear and crisp as an autumn treescape. The standard translation of the poem is something like:

old pond
a frog jumps in
the sound of water

All the many translations of “old pond,” as well as its creator’s intent as reported by posterity, sing a chorus of universes beyond our own, which are hovering just out of reach.

The fact that you can fix upon a short poem the portrayal of a specific image­—a unique setting with clear action—might suggest that reality is real, and the universe unitary. In a world where we can agree that “pond” refers to a small body of water, you might say, surely communication and connection are a given. If “frog” refers to a specific type of creature of the order Anura, what could possibly be the problem? (But what does a silence mean? What does it signify when someone will not meet your eyes? How can the sound of water be distinguished from the sound of—no, no, set it aside.)

It is true, as the robotic poet has already suggested, that communication is impossible without some common ground. Without consensus as to what words point to what, we are left with nothing but strings of characters and sounds—a library of Babel, a cacophonic chorus.

So: yes, we can communicate. Yes, we can connect with one another through words.

But the robotic poet knows this cannot be the end of the trail. She has heard frogs sing to the rain when no clouds are in the sky. She has seen ponds that flicker like cherry blossoms in the sand of the high desert. (She has seen her children’s eyes light up with the wonder of life, and cannot forget it. This talk of connection exhausts her.)


Let us return to the point at hand: Bashō’s frog haiku. The standard translation may seem adequate, but in fact it barely dips below the surface of the water. There are well over a hundred translations and adaptations of the poem in English, which vary from the literal to the free. Take, for instance, the versions of early translator Lafcadio Hearn:

Old pond — frogs jumped in — sound of water1

and 20th-century lay Zen teacher Robert Aitken’s obviously Buddhist adaptation:

The old pond has no walls;
a frog just jumps in;
do you say there is an echo?2

These renditions make it clear that the poem is far from simple. As we can see, even the word “frog” carries difficulties. For one thing, Japanese lacks plurals; beyond that, there is the question of what kind of frog. American audiences may envision a bullfrog, fat with bulk and warty, almost a toad. Thus, Alan Watts:

The old pond,
A frog jumps in:

(Jan, the robotic poet’s oldest son, once brought home pictures of such a frog, shot on a cheap disposable camera during a school field trip to Walden Pond. She remembers the way he chased his younger sister Courtney through the house waving it, spurred on by her squeals of disgust until the two of them collapsed in gales of helpless laughter and the photo fluttered to the ground, forgotten.)

Historically, though, the image of a bullfrog can make little sense. Bashō more likely had in mind the Japanese tree frog, a far smaller creature. And despite his stated preference for the singular in haiku, his disciple Kagami Shiko notes that this poem in particular originated at a gathering, where Bashō and other poets occasionally heard the sounds of frogs leaping into water outside the poet’s hut.4

Setting aside the question of frogs, there is the matter of the pond. Shiko reports that it was only after rejecting “globe-flowers” as the first line did Bashō hit upon the now-famous “old pond.” As such, according to critic and haikuist Hasegawa Kai, this most famous of Bashō’s haiku is also one of his most misunderstood: its historical origin means that any reader looking for a specific pond, or even reading the poem as an objective representation of reality, is missing the point. (Thoreau, too, changed reality to suit his literary output in Walden, freely adapting his experiences at the hut in the many years of revision before the volume’s publication.5 Or was Thoreau, too, a believer?)

Expounding on composition, Hasegawa discusses a poetic technique called kire, or cutting. (Flashes of bathwater red and a chilled child body; tearful phone calls and dried, brittle flowers—set it aside, set it aside.) Cutting in haiku usually refers to the use of specific words like ya or kana to syntactically and linguistically cut across what might otherwise be a flat, non-poetic statement. In English, the words are often replaced by a colon, ellipsis, or em dash.

Hasegawa is more concerned, though, with “cutting before and after,” a non-textual form of the technique that he says enables haiku to “express realities beyond language.”6 (Hospital beds and gravestones have their own solid being-in-being; withholding words can be a powerful punishment—set it all aside. Focus: you are nearly there.)

At this point, things get tricky.

How do we discuss what is beyond language? Pinning words onto the wordless, do we not seek to define it, to drag the ineffable down to our consensus reality? But some things cannot remain wordless, some events must be codified (again that flash of red, those flowers with their too-yellow bulbs and wheat-chaff stalks). Our humanity cuts us out of ourselves, pushes us to tell of our pasts as we have lived them.

But have we lived them?

(All those years spent cooped up with a pencil and notebook, scratching out heartfelt wonder at the manifold, impossible beauty of the real. All that time away from
home in libraries and conference halls and classrooms. And through it all the muteness of children, the willingness of the young to make their parent happy. Scattered memories across the pond of life, skidding one or two times on the surface before they sink below forever. Who can say what is life? What is living? Not the robotic poet—not she.)


In his interview with Richard Gilbert, Hasegawa says that the quintessence of the frog poem, and of Bashō’s mature style is that he “discovered a new cosmos” via haiku, and accessed it (them?) again and again.7 If Hasegawa is right, then perhaps what we see in the translations of Bashō are these same discoveries, made again and again. Each translator locates a new cosmos; each poet creates a new universe in which to exist. If Hasegawa is right, then perhaps there is hope.

The robotic poet is inclined to think he is.

(Somewhere a young girl is inspecting herself in the reflection of still water; somewhere her brother throws a stone in, and the ripples spread like laughter. Their mother may put her arms around their shoulders and be reassured by the definitive proof of their warmth. There’s a place out there somewhere where men and women still know how to live, to sing, to be.)


It is traditional for haiku essays to end with a poem, but the robotic poet has long since lost the will to write. She leaves you with this meagre glance at a now-forgotten, never-was place:

old-pond-frog-water-sound my own heart breaking in



1 – Lafcadio Hearn, Japanese Lyrics (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1915).

2 – Robert Aitken, A Zen Wave: Basho’s Haiku and Zen (New York: Counterpoint, 2003), 7.

3 – Interested readers can hear Alan Watts talk on some of the ramifications of haiku, philosophically speaking, in his 1958 radio talk “Haiku,” available at

4 – See the essay/interview titled “Haiku Cosmos” in Richard Gilbert, Poems of Consciousness (Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2008). Readers can also find a video of the interview online at

5 – See the many notes and asides in Henry Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, ed. Jeffrey Cramer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004).

6 – Gilbert, “Poems of Consciousness”.

7 – Ibid.

# # #



Zilpha Murrell and the Third Harpe’s Head

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Last Updated on Sunday, 07 September 2014 02:27 Written by Betsy Phillips Sunday, 07 September 2014 02:22

The only evidence that Zilpha Murrell ever existed is her son’s thumb—good for putting a scare in schoolchildren at the state museum—and some old country gossip. He’s still something of a legend, the bandit leader of the great and secretive Mystic Clan.

John Murrell.

If anyone knows her now, it’s only because she gets the blame for that horse thief. Folks are quick to point out that she ran a whorehouse while her poor, beleaguered husband was off riding the circuit. They love to say that she trained John and his brothers to rob from her clients and thus started him on his life of crime.

But surely you’ve heard of his most common deceit, how he’d dress as a preacher like his daddy and offer his services as a travelling parson to country churches. Having sat through enough sermons in his day, he could stand in front of those congregations and tell them all about the fiery pits of Hell and the glories of Jesus’s kingdom and no one would question who it was in front of them.

When they came out of church to find the only horse left was his, and when he jumped on that stallion’s back and rode off down the lane, that’s when it became obvious who, exactly, had been standing before them. Oh, yes, the Devil can quote scripture when it suits him. And his minions can steal your horses right out from under the nose of the Lord.

My point is, that surely doesn’t seem like a trick his momma could have taught him how to pull off, so maybe his daddy was a little more comfortable with the situation than he let on to church-going folks.

Anyway, this all happened—what I am about to tell you—long before John Murrell was much of a criminal at all. Hell, he was still a boy. This was back when Zilpha had her first tavern, which sat just east of Spring Hill, out on the Bethesda-Duplex Road, though back then it was just the Bethesda Road. Duplex was the name of a horse that the little town that exists there now was named for, and that horse came long after the Murrells. Nowadays, you go out there and it’s all farms and people trying to live close enough to Nashville to enjoy the benefits and far enough away to escape the trouble. If you don’t live there and you’re not taking back roads to Lewisburg, it’s hard to say why you’d be out that way at all.

But in Zilpha’s time, the Bethesda Road had one important distinction separating it from most roads in the area: it runs northeast. So, if you were walking the Natchez Trace home from New Orleans and your final destination was Murfreesboro, not Nashville, and you wanted an easy way through the hills, you were going to come right by Zilpha’s tavern. If you’d managed to get that far, just two nights from home, and could still afford to pay for a place to spend the night, and some entertainment for the evening? That meant no other ne’er-do-well had gotten hold of you yet.

All Zilpha had to do was stick a girl in her shift on the front porch and that convinced enough men to stop. Zilpha was able to keep the Murrells fed, clothed, warm, and paid, which is more than could be done on a preacher’s salary. At the time, Zilpha had three girls working for her: Jewel, a young gal from Knoxville who had a son whose father was unknown, though there were rumours that, when she left her father’s home for the last time, she deliberately kicked over an oil lamp on her way out the door and set the whole place ablaze; Aggie, a woman who had emancipated herself by faking her own death and running west across the mountains; and Pollyanne, who never said much, and was not allowed to smile at clients, because something about her grin made men nervous.

Zilpha herself did the work of the house when it suited her mood, but mostly, she preferred to manage. If she’d been born two hundred years later, or even been born a boy in her own time, she would have been a successful, legitimate businessperson, no doubt about it. As it was, she was doing quite well at her illegal enterprises. People often ask me what motivated her, as if an aptitude for it wasn’t enough. I can’t speak to her motivations completely, but I heard that, when she earned her first dollar, she slid the coins across the dining table to her husband, and told him what she was doing to support the family. She was proud of it.

But there was something else, something hard in her face, something dark at the edge of her voice, which took Reverend Murrell aback when she looked at him and said, “There is no man who can get the best of me now.” As far as I know, no one knows what she meant by that. Perhaps she didn’t like feeling dependent on him. Or perhaps it was some other, older indignity she’d suffered that she was now making right for herself.

While her husband was away, the children were usually kept nestled down on pallets by the fireplace in the kitchen while the women set down to work in the house. Though, surely, if we are to believe the old forgotten stories, the boys must have, from time to time, snuck across the lawn guided by moonlight and opened that back door so quietly that it woke no one and put their little tiny hands in full pockets over and over until those pockets were full no longer.

Here it was, late August in, I think, 1811 or 1812. It couldn’t have been much earlier than that, because John remembered this happening, and if he’d been younger than five, it’s unlikely he would have. Aggie was on the front porch, both advertising the nature of the building and shucking corn for dinner. The children were playing in the dirt, chasing the chickens and being chased by the spotted dog.  Aggie checked the road every now and then from her perch, and at last she shouted down to the nearest boy, “Ain’t that a horse and rider?”

The barefoot children ran off down the road, racing to gather more information about the stranger. After a bit, one of them ran back and said, “It’s a traveller, looking for a place to stay.”

“Go bring me a couple more ears of corn, then,” Aggie said. “And tell your momma there’ll be one more for dinner.”

The stranger arrived leading a procession of Zilpha’s children and her good dog. He was dressed like a man who didn’t do much honest work—his clothes a bit too fine, his hat a touch nicer than most men would dare arrive home with after being away for so long. And his hands were smooth and uncalloused, though his face showed signs of weather.

After dinner, he sat on the couch in the parlour, Pollyanne nestled under one arm, Jewel under the other. Zilpha sat in the highback chair across from him, with Aggie naked in her lap. He was nursing his fourth glass of whiskey. The girls were all on their second. Zilpha was drinking water and shaking her head ever so slightly after every sip, in order to pass it off as White Dog and herself as a little drunk.

That’s when he began to tell an extraordinary tale.

“My name,” he said, “is Ezekiel Harpe, and I am the youngest of the Harpe brothers.”  Now, I have to assume that you don’t know who the Harpe brothers are, but in 1812, there wasn’t a person in the Old Southwest who didn’t know that Big Harpe’s head had ended up on a pike in Kentucky and Little Harpe’s head had ended up similarly, but along the Natchez Trace, as a warning for anyone else who might want to take up the robbing and murdering lifestyle the Harpes had perfected.

But in all the stories about the Harpes—and there were many about how they killed the wives and children of the men who swore to bring them to justice, how they shared three wives at the same time, and how even the other outlaws in the Mississippi Valley were terrified of them—there had been no mention of a third Harpe brother.

Zilpha raised an eyebrow and regarded him suspiciously. She decided against openly laughing at his claim, but she did poke fun just a touch, saying, “So, if your one brother was Big Harpe and the other was Little Harpe, who does that make you? Just-Right Harpe?”

He smiled at her, and gave her a wink. She noticed his smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Ma’am, you can call me ‘Just-Right,’ if you think it suits.” He went on to regale them with his exploits, which sometimes had taken place in the company of his brothers and sometimes on his own. In spite of herself, Zilpha liked him. She always was a sucker for a good storyteller, which probably explains how she ended up with her husband, when you think about it. When it came time for Mr. Harpe to take comfort in one of the girls, Zilpha escorted him to her own bed.

When they were done, and he was resting his drowsy head on her soft stomach, she said, “Just-Right, what brings you out here? Your clothes aren’t dirty enough for you to have come clear from New Orleans. I reckon you came no further than Franklin.” She left unmentioned that the amount of cash she planned on liberating from his pocket after he fell asleep was not nearly as much as even the most modest farmers brought back with them on that long trip.

But rather than answer her question, he asked her one. “Can a man who can’t go to Heaven escape Hell?” She wasn’t the theologian in the family, so she kept her opinion on the matter short. “There’s always a way out, you just have to find it.” They both drifted off to sleep.

Zilpha was awoken by a loud gunshot. Pollyanne ran into the room first, followed by the other two. Someone threw open the curtains so they could see by the moonlight and there, on the floor, was Ezekiel Harpe, if that was his name. His brains and a bit of his skull were splattered on the wall. His blood was on everything and his gun was still in his hand.

Zilpha was calm. She got out of bed, let Aggie help her into her clothes, and then she said, “You girls clean this up.” Then she walked out of the bedroom, like finding a dead man in her room was a common occurrence. It wasn’t until she got downstairs and got herself situated in her chair that she began to shake. And then, when she thought of that man’s soft hands, first on her bare skin, and then on that cold gun, she began to scream. She did not stop screaming until Pollyanne held her and Aggie forced her head back and Jewel poured whiskey down her. The children ran into the house, the oldest boy with the rifle in his hands.

But there was nothing to be done. The stranger who claimed to be a Harpe was dead. In the morning, they took him out to the far meadow and buried him. They waited weeks for someone who missed him to come by looking for him, but no one ever did.

I can’t point you to the first time they noticed he was still around. But, by the end of September, they were no longer bothered when silverware rearranged itself on the table or when they came into a room to find the candle already burning. They just said, “Oh, that’s Just-Right Harpe.”

Even the children got in on it. “Ouch! I’m going to tell Momma that you pinched me.”

“It wasn’t me, I swear. It must have been Mr. Harpe.” Though it was Mr. Harpe only on rare occasions.

“He’s got a grave,” Jewel said one evening. “What’s he want?”

“I don’t know,” Zilpha admitted, though she devoted much thought to the question.

He never revealed his presence when the tavern had other guests, so he never frightened off paying customers, and for that Zilpha was grateful. But other than that small kindness, she found him more and more unsettling as weeks went by. One time, she had been half-napping on the porch in the autumn sun when she looked down and saw that her skirt had been hiked up to the middle of her thighs. She’d tried to talk herself into believing that she’d done it without realizing it, but to what end? No travellers had been by in days.

In early October, for three nights in a row, she woke to the sensation of her legs being gently but persistently pushed apart. Every time, she would sit upright in bed and throw her covers back, fully expecting to find someone, though who, she wasn’t sure. And every time, there was no one there. Finally, she insisted that Aggie sleep with her, even though Aggie cried and begged to not have to sleep in a room where a man had died. When Aggie joined her, that put an end to Zilpha being woken up.

In early November, the tavern was quite busy with men making their last trips before winter set in. But, finally, there was a day when no one came by. And on that day, when Zilpha was out in the kitchen, Just-Right appeared in the parlour. Jewel saw him materialize right in the hallway, right in mid-stride, and watched as he proceeded to make his way to the couch where he’d sat his last night alive.

Aggie ran and got Zilpha, who came into the parlour and cautiously made her way to her own seat.

“You’re dead,” she said to him.

“I find it duller than I expected,” he said.

“So I noticed.”

“And yet you always stop me.”

“You know where you are,” she said, a slight grin playing at the corners of her mouth. “There’s no exception for dead men.”

“I can pay,” he said, leaning closer to her. “That, Mrs. Murrell, I can do.”

“And how?” she asked.

“I can tell you where the Harpe fortune is buried,” he said. “It’s nearby. That’s why I came here in the first place. To dig it up.”

“Then why…?” She touched her head, not quite willing to address his demise directly.

“I’m sorry about that. It was a way out, like you said.” He didn’t elaborate. “I’ve always had moods. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t ride more with my brothers. Big Harpe always said he couldn’t stand me when I was in my darkness.” He stared off out the window for a second. “I still contend that I was a better robber than them. I had finesse where they had only brute force and a willingness to kill. And yet, here I am, buried in an unmarked grave. They’re legends. I’m already forgotten.”

“It’s better than their accommodations,” Zilpha pointed out.

“I reckon so,” Just-Right said, giving the matter some thought. “So, what do you say?”

“About what?”

“I can pay,” he said. Though her mouth curled down and though she shifted uncomfortably in her seat, she agreed. She didn’t leave money, not if she could help it.

Must you know what being with him was like? What good can come of that? Isn’t it better to imagine that the dead have no natural urges, rather than imagining them forever failing to fulfill them?


She said that she felt a heavy pressure, like a live man had rolled on top of her, but that, when she went to touch him, her hand passed right through. Then, for a moment, she thought she felt the usual firmness in the usual place, but, when she shifted her knees to give him more room, she was filled with an icy cold. When she opened her eyes she saw the whole world was a graveyard, one dead thing on top of another. Suddenly, her whole mouth tasted like dirt. She shivered from the cold and she shuddered from the bitterness in her throat. He let out a moan that frightened her so terribly she couldn’t move, even though the moan meant that he was done. Done doing whatever that was.

Then, he whispered in her ear, “Do you know where the big oak is, just east of the crossroads, the one that looks like an old man stretching towards the sky?” She did know that oak—she came by it when she came home from Franklin. “Ten paces north, about four feet down, is the Harpe fortune.”

At early dawn, she and her girls and the children, hell, even the spotted dog, all carrying something to dig with, went out to the big oak and all took ten paces, trying to guess where, exactly, ten paces made by a Harpe might have measured to. They began to dig. All day they dug, until every inch of them was covered in dirt and sweat. Until the dogs and children fell asleep under the oak, and then they dug long enough into the afternoon that the shade moved off the sleepers.

When they were finished, all they had was a wide area of nothing, excavated down four feet. Zilpha snorted in disgust. There was always someone, once or twice a year, who tried to get out of paying. The dead man was no different, just a thief, which he’d been honest about, so she couldn’t even be that mad.

The party that had practically trotted out to the oak moved much more slowly on the way home. Shovels dragged behind dejected boys who had already spent all of the treasure in their minds. The women walked in bitter silence, none more so than Zilpha.

But worse news awaited them when they walked in the house. The place had been ransacked, and everything of value was gone—not only all the money they’d made that season, but the silverware and the candlesticks and a pocket watch one of the boys had come up with somehow and then hidden in a tin cup on the hearth in the parlour.

“It would have taken an army,” Jewel said.

“No one came past us,” Pollyanne said.

“Who could have done this?” Aggie asked. She, most of all, was shaken. After all, whoever dared rob a tavern on a well-travelled road in broad daylight might be brave or reckless enough to return and take her. Not only that, the easiest way for Zilpha to recoup her lost fortune would have been to sell Aggie. Zilpha had promised her, repeatedly, that she would never, and it was tempting to assume that she was telling the truth. But did she not sell these women night after night? What’s one more sale? What’s a promise whispered in bed in the face of financial ruin?

“No living man,” Zilpha said, though whether she was answering Aggie’s question or revising her personal motto to “There is no living man who can get the best of me,” I can’t say. She stood there, in her hallway, looking at the mess of her life, for a long while—everything gone, the busy season over, and a household that depended on her. Everyone else stood quietly, no one daring to move or even talk. And then she said, “We’re not done digging today.”

Out to the far meadow they went. Into the ground went their spades and shovels. And finally, there were the rotted remains of Just-Right Harpe. With one swift thrust, Zilpha drove her shovel through Just-Right’s neck and decapitated him. She reached down and picked up his head. Holding it out in front of her like some hellish lantern, she led all her folks back to the house. The only food he had left them were some dried beans, so they ended up having to eat one of their good laying hens. Zilpha added that to her list of bitternesses.

After dinner, she threw Just-Right Harpe’s head in the pot and boiled what was left of his flesh off. When the skull was bare, she took it out and threw the rest of the pot’s contents to the dogs. The skull went with her into the parlour. She sat in front of the fire contemplating that skull—the tiny hole in one side, the big hole in the other. She ran her fingers across his teeth and they danced and rattled loose in their sockets. She sat that way all night, stewing in her anger, trying to figure out how to reach across into Death itself and either get back what had been taken from her or make that no-good thief sorry enough that he would never bother her again.

Or both.

In the morning, she said to the women, “Put the house back together and then carry on like everything’s fine. I don’t want anyone who’s watching us to see that we’re shaken. The rifle’s gone, but Aggie, you can rig a snare. Take the boys and see if you can’t catch us a rabbit. Go on now, all of you.” Everyone scattered to their appointed tasks.

Zilpha found that they were now without an axe, though she was relieved to see that he hadn’t taken the woodpile. They might starve to death, but they would not freeze. She went into the woods and found the thickest, sturdiest stick she could.

“I would have gotten you something better,” she said to the skull as she lowered it onto the stick, which she had stuck in the soft earth near the road, “sturdier, but someone stole my axe.” And then, once the skull was balanced on the stick, she began to circle it. “No more than ten paces from your skull, Ezekiel Harpe. You can never go more than ten paces from your skull.” She chanted this as she circled, cursing the soft-handed liar whose name she couldn’t even be sure of. She turned as she circled and twirled in the dirt, a dance born of righteous anger and terrible fear. And she circled until her feet shot through with pain, until her limbs ached, until she was too tired to be furious.

The next day, nothing happened. The skull sat silently. The day after that, also nothing. The third day, they had grown accustomed to their new routine, the necessity of stretching their food and supplies, the quiet. But Zilpha’s curse was strong, and, by the fourth day, the skull rattled against the stick. Then a voice came from the skull that they all heard: “Oh, now, what’s this?” Zilpha, who was watching the commotion from the porch, refused to answer.

After that, they couldn’t escape the sound of him howling out there by the road, cursing and ranting. They lost potential customers, who, if they weren’t put off by the skull in the front yard, certainly were by the way the skull yelled, “You go in there and I’ll tell your wife.” The hens, who should have been done laying for the year, all went broody. The spotted dog dug himself under the kitchen and growled at the children whenever they tried to lure him out. Even the children were cross with each other and stayed as far away from the house as they could.

For weeks, Zilpha sat on the porch and waited. And waited. And waited. She waited until it finally dawned on Just-Right Harpe that there was nothing more he could do to her. Then he grew quiet.

She stayed put.

Finally, one evening at the end of December, a fog rolled in and a misty, freezing rain fell. It was the kind of damp cold that made your bones ache, the kind that prepared you, Zilpha now knew, for the chill of death. She shut her eyes to listen to it more closely, the sound of it tapping on the wooden shingles above her, the dull, quiet thud of it falling on the dirt road, the gentle rush of it against the last brown leaves on the trees around her.

And then the sound of it hitting metal. She opened her eyes, but she couldn’t see as far as Harpe’s skull. She stumbled down the steps and out across the yard. And there, in the dark, surrounding the skull-topped stick, was everything he had taken from her. There was no other sign of him, though he had to be nearby.

“All right, then,” she whispered to herself. “No man. Living or dead.”

There are two stories about what became of the skull afterward. One is that she rejoined it with the rest of his remains, and, if you’re out in that far meadow, you can from time to time still hear Just-Right Harpe cussing away, cursed forever to remain less than ten paces from his skull. The other is that she tossed the skull in the yard, intending for the spotted dog to gnaw on it, but John found it before the dog did and he took it and stowed it away. According to this story, it is no wonder then that he went on to be such a great land-pirate, for he had the ghost of the bandit who managed to best Zilpha Murrell, if only temporarily, whispering advice to him.

And yet, what does either possibility matter? Haven’t all these people become as lost as Ezekiel Harpe’s grave? Haven’t we left them behind because we chose some more glorious myth of the past to put our faith in?

Or do they still haunt us? Is that the problem? You want to forget, but you must wonder, sometimes, where your grandfather’s money went. You know he went down to New Orleans with the whole hope of the family on a flatboat and came back with so much less than you knew there should be.

If your grandfather was a noble farmer and your father fought so valiantly in the War, if everything was glorious before the present wrecked it, then where’s your family’s fortune?

You could ask Zilpha Murrell. I bet she’d know.



Poetry: The Rats

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Last Updated on Saturday, 30 August 2014 00:49 Written by Michael Tugendhat Saturday, 30 August 2014 00:28

She is just another bone to the boneyard—
a souvenir of desire. She confronts what
she has wanted for so long to deny.
The chickens forget how to stay awake
in their glass. She has tea
like a British obligation. Obliged to spill
her secrets run through dreamlands and seem
to be hurried to find the right—
white dress. She smokes cigarettes to be
twenty years ago. Clothes burn in the sky
fields, a shoe hangs halfway out an office
window overlooking a cement parking lot.
There never were any cars here
where little miracles happen every day.
Rats midway between deformities
tear at the walls to chew on
a heart they found lying face down in the hallway.
The realtor never said anything about them.
And still she feels like she doesn’t deserve them.