Tale Told in a Tavern by Tom Howe

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We were wan and weak and weary as we wound our woeful way
Past the ruined castle of our facile dreams of yesterday.
We stumbled down the cobbled road and on into the vale,
Where I said, "Let us stop, you are so wan, and weak, and pale."
"Not yet." You turned away and kept your weary footsteps plodding on.
"The sun that yon far hill is not yet nodding on,
And we have far to go before tomorrow comes,
And farther yet to go before we find our homes."

You spake no more but kept your tired will upon the road.
You strained and sighed beneath the burthen of your too-heavy load.
And on we wandered, by the curving, sluggish stream,
O'erhung with willows, larch, and aspertine.
As evening deepened in the vale,
The stream branched out and then was swallowed by the swale.
"How ever shall we cross this marshy swale?," asked I.
"I fear I have not strength enough to even try."
"Then let us rest," you said.
"We'll take this flowered meadow for our bed."

Underneath the scented leaves of olive,
Beneath the sacred olivetto tree,
We lay among the sweetly-smelling grasses,
And learnt of love and sensuality.
That moonlit meadow is but mem'ry now,
The dappled moondance of a mordant mind.
But ah, 'twas then, and not just passing show.
It was the love of an eternal kind.

Anon we slept, two dreamers sharing dreams of bliss,
Two lovers sharing all the universe in a kiss.
I dreamt of you and you so dreamt of me.
We dreamt we were together on the sea,
Sailing a ship with silverine sails
Past the place where knowledge fails,
And into a world so shining and pure,
Its darkest shade is clear azure.
We landed on a wooded isle and swam together in a sea-green pool,
And danced as lovers do.

When we awoke the sun sailed high above the eastern hills.
Birds were singing, dancing leaf-to-leaf,
Spouting songlets from their busy little bills,
Singing songs of phlox and daffodils,
Speaking to each other of mystery and belief,
Belief in something strong and pure and magically alive,
Belief in someone whose own singing living makes you live.

When we arose our love rose with us, warming to the waking dawn,
And there stood all-a-trembling, newborn as a wond'ring faun,
Enfolding us in essences of gentleness and of peace,
A place of twin togetherness, of sharing and release.

And there we dwelt for all the yearning day,
Sunlight dancing 'cross the meadow in a strangely timeless way.
For spells we stayed in silence, lost inside each other's eyes,
Or looking up together, holding hands, and scanning skies.

The clouds were few but fulsome, evanescent and sublime,
As though a sky-borne poet had condensed some cloudy rhyme,
To billow tall then break apart and scatter silver threads
Which dip themselves at eventide in various fulgent reds
And drift off somewhere unseen to their atmospheric beds.

For that day we had rested and refreshed our weary souls,
Renewed ourselves in one another's self, sans fashion roles.
When once more we set off upon our necessary quest,
As in green troopers sure of death, upon first hearing friendly trumpets from afar,
A newborn hope leapt up in love to stand us to the sternest test
And charge our limbs with 'boldening joy, yet peaceful, not of war.

Your noble father, as he lay a-dying on the bloody field,
Of grevious cuts and all the fluids of his body spilled,
Did on me lay, though a mere boy, his merest page,
To care for you until you come of royal age,
And take you to the garden court of golden Windermere,
A queen whose love for him would hold as well his daughter near.
"This shall I do," said I, "though I do not know the way."
And thus began our odyssey. Yet a yearning love I'd felt before,
For the antipodean beauty of a maiden princess glimpsed beyond the door.
And now you stood before me, in metamorphosis,
Looked up at me, and started our new journey with a kiss.
And thus began the morn of our long-destined day,
Thus spread the curtain on the final act in our sweet tragedy.

The stream we followed fell full that morn into the hollows of the deep fens.
Beyond a ragged line of twisted scrubby oak and knarléd vine,
The fenny marsh stretched out to the horizon on both ends,
A vasty swale of pathless mire. "Perhaps," I said, "this is a sign
That Fate does not intend for us to take this road
(This road that is no road at all, but rather an obstruction).
Who knows what lives within these dismal fens, what dark untimely brood
Inhabits slimy pools therein and dreams of our destruction?"
"Yet we must cross," you said. "The foul usurper's armies lie behind us.
If we return, that evil beast will surely find us."

Said I, "By oath I swore to bring you home to Windermere,
And if you deem this is the only way, then must I conquer fear.
Yet now my fear is not mine own, but rather dwells in you:
If ill befell you, I cannot conjecture what I'd do."
"You must be brave then, for both of us," you said.
"And if we home at last, we shall be wed, as you have asked.
For I do love thee and would marry thee,
For in my heart I am your wife since we together lay beneath the tree."

"'Tis yes then? Praise the gods! And thou shalt ever, ever be my wife,
A prize more precious to me than my life! My love, I love thee true.
You'll be my queen, though never may I be a king for you."
"Then ye shall be my knight," you said. "And thou my day," said I.
"Without the loving warmth of you, my bright sweet sun,
Of sunrise, I would never see another one.
My life must then be lived forever 'neath a darkling sky."
"You are too fond," you said, "Though surely I don't mind.
You see my love for thee is of a similar kind.
I ask you not to task me for this. I am not to blame
If passion passes prudence and prods me into shame."
You fluttered your eyes skyward with a soulful sigh.

"I must protest, I do not too much like your alibi.
What shame is found in feeling love for such as I?"
"No shame at all," you said, "but in the excess quantity.
In this I have a sweet susceptibility."
You took my hands in thine and drew them to your breast.
I felt the crystal beating of a loving heartsong in your chest.

We stood a moment, then looked down across the swampy fens.
Distant groves of weeping cypress, birch and hawthorn tree
Merged with the murky bottom lands.
A low mist hung hazily in hollows, obscuring trees whose limbs
Sometimes rose fingerlike from the haze, dragging weary mosses
Like washing-rags on a scullion's arm, through the sloshing airs.
To the west, a patch of ancient holy ground with a ruined church
And a watery boneyard, where a score of sunk and crazy-tilted crosses
Did seem to wobble, weave, and lurch along the mire
Like drunken bishops and groggy priests dancing dirges in solemn pairs,
Lay overwhelmed by swampy muck, the blasted church a single broken spire...
O'er all, a casted haze that slowly swirled and moiled the mist into a maze.

"Do you guess, my love, a way which we might go?"
I spoke, so full of love and dread bemixed,
So full of passion, fear, and dreadful woe,
I stood as one whose spirit stood transfixed.
"A guess is all we have, beloved one.
A guess, or luck, or fate, is all will see this journey done.
Perhaps our destiny lies not with Windermere,
But our mere bones will end up lying here somewhere."
"Say not that," said I. "Somehow we shall make it through.
I swear it, as I swear my love for you."

The dreadful swamp spread out before us as we made our way
Down the hillock where we stood and into the humid haze,
Where soon our steps were sucking mud. I took the lead
And you kept close behind, as well from choice as fearful need.

A brooding silence loomed around us larger than our fear;
No breeze of freshening air, or song of singing bird was near,
But sudden plops and slithery slops into the mirey ooze
As some amphibian dweller waked from its swampy snooze.
And once or twice a lonesome rook appeared whose blaring caw would echo
Through the empty air as in that place of water sounds would echo back to you
Muted, dampened, moistened by the all-pervading wet.

The sounds, the sounds of water dripping,
Dripping, dropping, splishing, sploshing everywhere,
Not loud, nor worth the notice, until you've spent some time there,
Until the silence spreads its muffling cloak o'er all the wet surround,
And all you hear is the sloppy sequence of your footfalls in the swampy ground.
Then, accustomed to that mundane tone, you 'gin to pick the tinest quirk,
With a questing ear for ophidian things that hide and creep and lurk,
If not in fact, in your imagination, beneath the stagnant pools and marshy bog.
And every plop and sudden plunk feeds your fear until you hear things everywhere.
Thus, searching through the slowly swirling mists,
Your reason starts in time to go agog.

And so all morning long we slogged together through the dismal lands.
Often would we find ourselves where one could go no farther,
Where the bog would sink, becoming treacherous and soft.
And we would sigh and for a moment touch the other's hands,
Then turn around, retrace our steps, and try to find another,
Safer route. And many times we turned, and seeming oft'.
At last when morning had passed on, and noon had lost her zenith,
I said, "'Tis time we broke our fast, the sun doth westward leaneth.
And though my love for you may feed my soul, I cannot live on love alone,
Not in this dismal place. Nor can you, my love, with determination only,
Forge the strength to force your way beyond this soggy marish."

You said, "I wonder if we yet have left that ancient whelméd parish
Wherein yon ruined church did hold its sovereign opinion,
When these were gentle lands, before the swamp enforced its waterish dominion.
This place doth chill me to the very bone, though it is warm enough.
Forebodings come to me, my love, forebodings faint and rough.
Yet something secret whispers to me in my fear;
I feel the presence of a brooding evil here."

"'Tis only whispers of a hollow stomach cozening an empty mind," I joshed.
Though fearful too, I knew those fears must needs be quickly quashed,
Or would o'ercome us, and leave us limpsey with despair.
"Come," said I, "we shall have a picnic by that hoary cypress there."
"A picnic! – strange conceit to stage a picnic in such a place as this."
And yet you smiled, leant up, and on my cheek did lay a kiss.
Little knew I then that kiss would be the last I felt forever from your lips.

And thus we settled by the lofty ancient cypress, underneath an arching knobby root.
Many branches of the tree were hanging dead, with randomly a shoot along the tips.
Yet on those limbs hung many mosses, limp festoons of grey and ugly green,
A dying panoply, a canopy of dire and drooping pennants,
Fit to grace the funeral of an undead king, whose vassals and miserable tenants
Doth grovel in a kingdom of slime, where filth is reckoned clean.

"Methinks this is a lovely garden spot," said I.
"At least," you said, "it holds the gift of being dry."
I laid my cloak along the ground so we could closely sit
And make our meager meal, though little was there meal to make of it.
The burdening gloom of our surrounds had seeped into my mind
And cast a murky shadow on my soul.
"I would I had," said I, "some merry jest to ease your troubled heart.
But here my love, in this place of liquefaction, no humor can I find
Within my darkened spirit, no quickening jibe or story droll,
No repartee or comic role,
For now some cloud has settled on my laughing spot and will not depart."

"Well I know it," you said. "Something ominous is growing,
Some fearful thing beyond our knowing.
I feel it moving in the yonder fens,
A bestial brood, bred in brutal glens."
"Come, come, " said I, "this is a quirk of your imagination,
A mere faux pas of intuition.
You must not let your wayward thoughts run off with you this way."
"Oh, perhaps you're right," you sighed. "It is my own fear that I sense.
Yet the fear I feel is more than circumstance."

"It is this awful place," I said. "It weighs you down:
This creeping forest rising sickly from its slough,
Foul biting insects, buzzing and crawling, thirsting for our blood,
And nay, my own benighted suffering is not enough,
I must stand helpless witness to the misery of my sweet rosebud.
My little dove, beloved one, I feel for you,
And would that there were something I could do to ease your suffering."
"Do not fret, my love, I shall be well when we are rid of this accursed place."
"Then let us go, and try this afternoon to up the pace.
The sooner we depart this loathsome bog,
The sooner shall we sing our happy epilogue,
And live forever in contentment, and at peace."

And so once more we set our course into the murksome deeps,
Into a garden grown at some unholy god's caprice,
A place where evil breeds a leprous growth, and goodness sleeps.
Along our path lay greenly glowing mounds of liverswort and devil's welling.
Rank clumps of sheepsbane, hathbell, and poisonous witch's oath
Did root and ruffle in the slimy muck like vegetative pigs.
And trees grew overteemed with all-entwinéd vines and strangler figs,
Which bind themselves to a healthy host and slowly, feeding on their own dwelling,
Doth twist and wrap their inching limbs around the tree,
Until they choke the life from it, and take its place triumphantly,
Their twisted, hollow shape a testament to a devious cannibal growth.

"Think you these dreadful fens go on much farther?," you asked.
"I doubt it," said I. "But if they do, I fear we may be overtasked.
– Be careful of this sunken root, my dear,
We do not want you falling in that wallow there."
And so it was we made our way for mile by creeping mile,
Through often knee-deep mud, malodorous and vile,
Until the light began to slowly fade into a twilit gloaming.

"Alas, my love," I said, "it looks as though we'll have to spend the night here.
I'd hoped by now we would have made our way clear.
I see at last we'll have to spend another day at least in roaming
These accursed fens. Mayhaps that yonder reedy meadow holds a dry spot."
"I like it not," you said. "I think we'll find a better hope ahead.
My fear hath grown apace, and more, the more we closed on this location.
I do not like this place. I feel the presence of a lewd abomination."
"Wait...did you hear that?" I thought I caught the crying of a plaintive voice.
"Let's go," you said, "while still we have the choice."
"No – hark," said I. "I think I heard it once again."

The evening mist had settled in and slowly curled about the mead before us,
While teeming ranks of hidden frogs had striken up their dusky chorus.
And yet above that raspy croak, beyond the cloak of the mirksome mist,
Came the haunting notes of a strange, unsettling song,
Notes that seemed somehow off-key, yet perfectly suited to the melody.
"We must away," you said, and took my hand into your trembling fist.
"We cannot stay here. Please, my love, come with me, come along."
Said I, "Perhaps they need assistance. There – is that a light I see?"
A quavery gleam appeared a-dancing dimly in the mizzle.

"You wait here, my love," I said, "whilst I investigate this mystery."
I took my hand from yours and left to find the cause of such strange sorcery.
Yet almost nigh as I approached it, the light began to wink and fizzle
And finally go out. "Hello...?" My anxious greeting echoed in the moving fog.
A fear began to creep upon me. I turned to look for you and you were gone.
I called to you and there was no reply, or it was swallowed by the swirling mist.
I ran, shouting out your name, to where we stood before,
And in my panic, tripped on a protruding log
And landed face-first in the elemental bog.

As I rose, cursing, covered with a stinking, earthy gore,
Again I spied the dancing light, and like a blind somnambulist,
Turned and walked into the insubstantial skirling air.
The song I'd heard before now seemed to sound from everywhere.
The beam grew brighter, and I spied a shape belighted by the gleam,
A lovely shape, of something strangely sifted from a dream:
A woman, pale and glowing, primally nude, her long hair flowing
Over sculpted shoulders, darkly framing sweet soft breasts.
She held a lyre and looked at me and sang a song of infinity.
Her eyes were ocean green and glittering, moving eyes and mercury deep,
Eyes that seemed to grow, as in them I did look,
Eyes that seemed to read my soul as I would read a book,
Eyes into whose misty depths I took a heedless leap...

And the time misted into everness, and the gleam glimmered into half-light,
As she stood, came to me softly singing, and took me in her arms,
Guiding me to places I had never gone before,
To a far distant island on a far-off alien shore.
So overwhelmed by her unearthly charm was I, that I was taken out myself,
And seemed to soar into a lambent summer sky,
Where she and I did closely dance above mere gravity,
As souls of butterfly configuration, or sprite, or elf.
We danced into the mystic ballroom of eternity.

How long we lay in that enrapturous embrace, I'll never know.
But when I woke from this mad dream, I found myself alone,
Lying naked in the oozing mud, the mists about me lightening their tone
As dismal day descended once again upon our dark tableau.
And then a turgid lump of swampy weed beside me moved and gave a sigh.
Then once again the muckish hummock budged and gave out with a mewling cry,
And shifted and stood erect, a living being, a bestial horror,
A slobbering thing, o'erslimed with rivulets of pink and green,
With glabrous eyes, and a spongy driveling orifice for a mouth.
And in its raw, tentacular fist...a golden lyre.
Of this disgusting thing I'd been the worshipful adorer!

Revulsion struck me and shame with my obscene
Tryst, and my abhorrent, deluded desire.
And then, belatedly, I thought of you.
"Where is she, you hag of smut, you horrid slushy slut?"
I stood and screamed at the oozing thing,
And it stood there dripping, and said nothing,
But turned and shambled back into the swamp from whence it came,
And left me there, alone and nude, with nothing but my shame.

All morning long I wandered through the fens, calling you.
Yet not a trace I found, but for a buckle of your shoe,
Wedged between a twisted root and an adjacent rock.
At last, despairing, I crouched beside a broken, dying tree,
And wept in spasmic gaspings, o'ercome by shame and misery.
O my love, I wronged thee, and now you are gone.
I left you and lost you, to what unguarded fate I cannot know.
My dammned unholy lust has led me past you, to betray you, my beloved one.
Mere dead remorse and wailing grief shall n'er avail to bring you home.

And then at length I lost myself and wandered into madness;
I leapt and tore about the fens in frantic sadness.
And as the long days passed I grew gaunt and wan and starving.
My hunger drove me madly to feed on twitching frogs
Garnered from the squishy banks of antiquary bogs.
And when, one day, still wildly wandering, I finally regained my cracking wits,
I found my beard all straggled half-way down my chest.

I looked for you, my love, but never found you.
I only pray that you have worked your way from this accursed swamp.
For I am lost in this pathless place, adrift in the fogs,
Where all is cast with cloud, and the sky looms darkling overhead.
Doomed am I it seems, in this gloomy marish, to wander ever outcast from our nuptial bed.

On some nights when I hark and list, I hear the singing in the mist,
And though I try, cannot resist the calling of the gleam.
Then once more drawn am I into the awful dwelling of my wicked dream.
'Tis true I left you for another, more enchanting amorata, princess pure,
And still am sometimes 'suaded to a hellish tryst by her blasphemous lure,
Yet always will I search for you my love, and swear to you,
The love I feel for your beloved self is constant and undying true.