Wednesday, June 14, 2017

WHY I WROTE A SONG OF THE ONE

An age-old story for a new millennium, A Song of the One is an epic poem that retells the central narrative of the Bible. The poem flows from Genesis to Revelation and includes all of Scripture's key stories: Creation, the Fall, the Flood, the Lives of the Patriarchs, the Exodus, the Kingdom of David, the Babylonian Exile, the Return to the Holy Land, the Life of Christ, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Revelation.

To keep the poem flowing and short enough for you to read in a single night, I've had to leave out some stories that, though important in themselves, didn't fit the poem's flow. I've also had to leave out most of the wealth of the Wisdom literature and prophecies of Jewish Scripture, as well as the epistles of the New Testament. My goal wasn't to try to replace the Bible. Instead, I want you to experience the drama of the Biblical narrative and come to, or come back to, the Bible with new eyes.

As part of helping you come to the Bible with new eyes, I've tried, while being faithful to the Biblical narrative, to take it out of its cultural context and make it universal. As part of my effort to do so, I've changed all of the names from the forms that they had in the original Hebrew and Greek. Some names, I've translated into English; others, I've replaced with words that describe the basic character or role of a person or people. My goal in changing their names was to make ancient persons live for you today.

I've written A Song of the One in American English, my native tongue. The form of verse that I used in the poem is one that began with Homer, but was adapted to American English by Longfellow in his epic poems "Evangeline" and "The Courtship of Miles Standish." I've used this form because great poets of the past have used it to write immortal verse. I've tried to make this form live today by using everyday words and putting conversations into everyday speech.

My goal was to write something that would be accessible, and appeal, to persons of every culture who've learned to read English. I've tried to write something that will entertain you. Beyond that, I've tried to write something that will bring you with fresh zeal to the sacred text that's been changing hearts and lives for thousands of years.

You can learn more about A Song of the One here. You can read the Prelude and the first two cantos for free by clicking on Preview.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

WHY I WROTE THE LAST DAYS OF THE KINGDOM OF JUDAH

A kingdom's fall is dramatic whether in fiction or in history. For those of us who read The Bible, few kingdoms' falls outweigh that of Judah to the Babylonian Empire, as described in II Kings, II Chronicles, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. There, the House of David, of which Jesus Christ appeared as heir in the New Testament, had held power for centuries while worship of the LORD went on in Solomon's Temple.

The kingdom had been living on borrowed time since the reign of Manasseh, who'd given himself up to idolatrous worship of foreign gods — worship including ritual prostitution and infant sacrifice — when his young grandson Josiah took the Throne of David. No one could have expected much of an eight-year-old of apostate ancestry, yet he became a pleasant surprise for Judah as he restored it to the worship of the LORD under Moses' law.

Josiah was young when he took the throne, and young when he died. What would have become of Judah had he lived a full life, we'll never know. He died because, unwisely for a small nation's king, he chose to play a game of empires. Assyria, which had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and had brutally invaded the southern kingdom of Judah, was swiftly decaying, its fate a plaything between the resurgent empire of Egypt to Judah's south and the resurgent empire of Babylon to Judah's north. Perhaps because of a bad decision by his great-grandfather Hezekiah, another godly king who played a game of empire, Josiah chose to back Babylon and went to war against Egypt. He may've been David's heir, but Egypt was no Goliath to fall to a weaker opponent. Josiah was fatally wounded in action, and his kingdom became an Egyptian puppet-state.

Things might still have gone well for Judah had Josiah's heirs not fallen away from his reform of Judah's faith and practice. Sadly, his first successor, his son Jehoahaz, chosen by Judah's people to replace him on the throne, got little chance to show the world who he was or what he could do, as the victorious pharaoh of Egypt took him into exile and replaced him with a puppet, his brother Eliakim, whom the pharaoh gave the regnal name Jehoiakim.

Jehoiakim was loyal to Egypt as long as a strong pharaoh was on its throne, but switched his loyalty to Babylon when its ruler, Nebuchadnezzar, showed up around Jerusalem with a strong army. Switching sides whenever someone stronger showed up became a theme of the House of David in its decline. To make things worse, Jehoiakim bankrupted Judah by taxing it heavily, first to pay tribute to Egypt and then to build an impressive palace for himself. Jehoiakim also burned a book of the Bible — the first draft of the Book of Jeremiah, which the prophet had to dictate again from memory. Jehoiakim was no more faithful to Babylon than he'd been to Egypt or to God: after three years of serving Bablyon, he tried to switch sides back to Egypt. When his diplomatic maneuvering went awry, he was taken prisoner by Babylon and died in exile.

Jehoiakim's son Jeconiah (or Jehoiachin) took the throne for three months while Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem for the first time. Like Jehoahaz, Jeconiah never got a chance to show what he could do; like Jehoiakim, he ended his days in Babylonian exile. Unlike his father, he was honored in Babylon and became head of an advisory council of captured kings.

Borrowing a page from the pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar put onto Judah's throne a puppet, Jeconiah's uncle Mattaniah, who received the regnal name Zedekiah. The Bible paints Zedekiah as a man of consummate wickedness, but, if you read the accounts of his actions closely, you'll likely see him as a man of consummate weakness. Trapped between Babylon and Egypt as his father, brothers, and nephew had been, Zedekiah repeated all of their mistakes and made new ones of his own. A weather-vane turning in every breeze, he sought endless ways out of his dilemma: listening to false prophets and at times even to a true one, freeing slaves and then re-enslaving them, being a loyal subject of Babylon and then betraying it for the weak reed of Egypt, and asking advice from everyone and taking it from no one. Is it any wonder that his reign led to the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, the destruction of David's palace and of Solomon's temple, and the exile of the Jews to what's now Iraq for seventy years? God could hardly have sent a harsher judgment on Judah than letting it be ruled by Zedekiah.

The Bible's accounts of Jerusalem's fall have a sad coda. As Nebuchadnezzar was willing to give the remaining Jews of Judah limited self-government under his sovereignty, he appointed a Judean court official, Gedaliah, as governor of a newly made Babylonian province. With Jeremiah's help, Gediliah was on course to revive Judah as a Babylonian protectorate when foreign intrigue, an internal traitor, and his own blind pride conspired to assassinate him. The surviving Jews, fearing Babylonian reprisals for the governor's death, headed off to Egypt for sanctuary. They dragged there Jeremiah, mourning that his people had returned to the land from which Moses had freed that people's ancestors from slavery.

I've given you a brief history of the last years of the kingdom of Judah as background for why I've chosen to write about that period. It combines several themes that have fascinated me as a writer: the nature of prophecy, political intrigue, and the fall of a once flourishing civilization. That period holds the fate of objects of mystery and wonder: Solomon's temple and the Ark of the Covenant. That period is relevant to today, when small states in the Middle East maneuver in a game of great powers. One of those small states is Israel…

Above all, that period raises questions still relevant today. How should we behave in a world where great powers act seemingly without regard for, or even in defiance of, God's law? How relevant is that law to Jews and Christians today? What should we do when patriotism to our nation conflicts with service to our God? Does the fall of Judah and Jerusalem to the Babylonians hold lessons from history that we do ill to forget?

The Last Days of the Kingdom of Judah deals with its period of history chronologically and completely. I've dealt with Jeremiah as prophet in greater detail in Parables before Jesus. I'm currently writing a book of devotionals based on Jeremiah's teachings — a book that I plan to publish in December of this year. In the end, I hope to use all that I've learned about this history to write a novelization of Jeremiah's life — the life of a compelling man in dangerous times.

You can read the opening sections of The Last Days of the Kingdom of Judah by clicking on Look inside.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

WHY I WROTE BETWEEN TWO FIRES

Sometimes, you find a title before you find a story that fits it. I wrote down "Between Two Fires" in a notebook years before I began the novel that would get that name. Between the writing down and the beginning, I tried several times to write a short story based on the title. I got my viewpoint character away from the fire that began the story (the fire of a burning city, as it happened), but I never got him to the fire that was supposed to end the story. Poor guy. Imagine being a character whose story never ends…

Meanwhile, I'd been reading J. R. R. Tolkien's Silmarillion and lamenting his never finishing a long version of his oldest story, "Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin," which he wrote in the trenches of France during World War One. So much could've been done with his tale of a hidden city betrayed by its king's son and destroyed by dragons sent by the dark lord Morgoth. The sudden flight of a hero through darkness from a burning city…

Yes, the fall of Gondolin influenced me when, during my first NaNoWriMo (2006), I wrote the first draft of Between Two Fires. How many present-day writers of fantasy can honestly say that Tolkien hasn't influenced them? Still, my story soon diverged from Tolkien's. My viewpoint character wasn't a Man who wed an Elf-maid, the king's daughter, but a king's distant heir whose marital prospects are clear to everyone else but him. You'll learn what comes of them before story's end. Too, my story has no dragons, but what I made up to replace them is I hope as dramatic as dragons would be.

As the story went on, it became ever more my own. Onto a doomed city's battlements came a prophetic priestess, like, yet unlike other members of the Tinisarai, the Star-Begotten. As Tolkienesque novels should have poems, she spoke her prophecies in chokas, examples of a form of Japanese verse of which I learned one day when, bored in a library, I was browsing through the Encyclopedia Britannica. It was fun and easy for me to compose chokas, and I didn't see why only the Japanese should've invented them. Later, I'd give forest-dwelling Vikings called the Vorsteren a literature of alliterative verse (all right, Tolkien wrote scads of this), and the Cavern Dwellers, my version of Dwarves, recorded their lore in the easy running meter, as Lewis Carroll called it, in which Longfellow wrote Hiawatha.

Please don't think that, if you read Between Two Fires, you must wade through long stretches of poetry that interrupts the story's flow. The discipline of writing a first draft of over (but not much over) 50,000 words in a thirty-day month forced me to be extremely tight. The novel focuses principally on battle. As a history buff, I've studied wars — World War One, World War Two, the American Civil War, the wars of the late Roman Republic, and the Crusades, inter alia — for most of my life, and I put into the novel all that I'd learned of war. Still, as the novel is fantasy, it needs fantasy weapons. I hope that you like light-lances and sunwings powered by prayer. Oh, yes, and my substitute for dragons.

Every story needs a MacGuffin, in Alfred Hitchcock's immortal terminology. Mine has seven MacGuffins, the Oracle-Stones, brought from the One by the Nine Messengers at the world's dawn to turn primitive Men into the Star-Begotten. Why I had nine Messengers for seven Oracle-Stones, I must confess to having forgotten in the past eleven years, but, in any case, only one of the Messengers matters: Olarak, who refused to return to the One when his work in the world was done. He claimed the seven Oracle-Stones for a purpose as nefarious as I could imagine, but, before he could fulfill that purpose, the Star-Begotten stole them back from him and crossed the sea to a refuge in the east. He followed them there and, over the centuries, recovered three of the Oracle-Stones. As our story starts, he makes a play to regain the other four. What becomes of his play will I hope please and surprise you.

Despite his evil intent, Olarak is no dark lord. One criticism that I have of Tolkien's Morgoth and Sauron is that they're too nihilistic ever to rule a sustainable world, and their followers, the Balrogs, Dragons, Orcs, and Trolls, are too debased, disorderly, and wantonly destructive to survive. Once they ran out of plunder and slaves, they'd starve to death. Successful villains are disciplined, goal directed, and hard working. Indeed, a worthy villain works harder than any nine-to-fiver works. You might as well live an honest life. In any case, as for Olarak, as Scripture says, "Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light" (II Corinthians 11:14). Olarak is angelically beautiful and desires only immortality amid a world of imperishable beauty. It's the means that he's willing to embrace to reach his goal that makes him absolutely evil…

You can read the opening of Between Two Fires for free by clicking on Look inside.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

WHY I WROTE THE DROWNING LAND: AN ATLANTEAN ALPHABET

Like J. R. R. Tolkien, I can't seem to get the fall of Atlantis out of my mind. That curling green wave…

Sadly for Tolkien and for a world of readers, he finished none of the projected novels of his vision of Atlantis, Númenor, the Westernesse from which Aragorn's ancestors came to found the Middle-Earth kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor, which he would rule. We readers must content ourselves with "The Akallabêth," a summary of Tolkien's majestic vision of Atlantis, which appears towards the end of The Silmarillion. The summary makes you mourn what never got written.

I wouldn't set anything that I've written beside "The Akallabêth," but I have finished four versions of the Fall of Atlantis. You can read one of them, "Ignis Deorum," for free on line. My most ambitious treatment of the Fall of Atlantis is the novella The Drowning Land: An Atlantean Alphabet, in which I follow the last days of the Land amid the Sea through the eyes of an amnesiac who bears a curse: he can't learn his name without destroying the birthplace to which he's returned.

You may wonder about the second part of the novella's title. I must confess that both it and the novella itself were inspired by my memories of long ago having read and often reread Harlan Ellison's "From A to Z, in the Chocolate Alphabet." (I wish that I had his gift for titles.) I gave myself the challenge of writing a story in which each chapter title starts with a successive letter of the alphabet, and each chapter starts with the first letter of its title. Even as I began to plot the novella, I feared that the X chapter would be the plotting's roughest part. Imagine my surprise when I came across an X word that fit the sources that I was using, and determined the conflict and the action for the rest of the novella. Sometimes, what's the most restrictive can be the most liberating.

If you're familiar with the Atlantis legend, you know that it's taken many forms over the millennia. I've generally stuck to the original sources, the Timeaeus and the Crit1as of Plato. In this novella, I added to them details from another ancient source, Diodorus Siculus. Critics of the Atlantis legend tend to see these sources as contradictory, but, for me, they meshed well. Sometimes, contradiction is the mother of consistency.

Enough pseudo-ancient wisdom! (Or is it ancient pseudo-wisdom?) In "real life," if one can speak of such a thing in relation to Atlantis, "Atlantis," a Greek word meaning "land of the god Atlas," could never have been the native name of the land of which Plato would write. I honor this fact by never referring to that land as "Atlantis" in the novella itself. The "Athens" against which the "Atlanteans" fought, if that city existed at all in the legend's time frame, would not have been Greek, but could have been a city of the pre-Greek people that the Mycenaeans would overrun. Athens, believe it or not, isn't a word of Greek origin. Still, a Greek pun is important to the plot that I devised, so Athens is Greek in my story.

When I'm writing fantasy, I like to use prophetic dreams. Properly used, they can be stories within a story and reflect the main story in ways that illuminate it. A prophetic dream can speed the story along. Here, they give you a glimpse into the other world in which the gods — the twelve principal gods of Ancient Greece, though not called by their Greek names — are weighing the deeds of the land's children as their fate is determined. I get to complete the scene amid which Plato abandoned his second tale of Atlantis. For a good pun, one might change the world.

You read a tale of the fall of Atlantis not for that tale's linguistics or dream sequences, however, but for its action. This must lead inevitably to the land's destruction in a single night by the gods' judgment. In keeping with this stricture, I give you prophecy, omens, intrigue, murder, and the X factor, which I don't want to spoil for you in case of your choosing to read the tale. I also give you love, color, pageantry, and a sense of what the antediluvian civilization may've been like. I hope that I give you enough to take you from A to Z.

If you want to learn more of The Drowning Land: An Atlantean Alphabet, you can read its opening sections (A-D) for free by clicking on Look inside.

Monday, April 10, 2017

WHY I WROTE MARS HILL: PAUL V. THE PHILOSOPHERS

Over the years, I've studied Church history, which I've summarized in my books Trinity, Canon, and Constantine: Clear Light on the Early Church and Monks, Crusaders, and Heretics: Clear Light on the Medieval Church. One of the themes that runs through this history is the relationship — at times, friendly; at times, contentious — between Christian theology and secular philosophy. Philosophers who rejected the Church's teachings used their discipline to debunk them; philosophers who accepted the Church's teachings used their discipline to defend and define them. Platonism, Academic philosophy, Stocism, and Neo-Platonism — all have shaped the Christian faith and practice that has reached us. From Christianity's viewpoint, has this role always been beneficial? On one hand, logical philosophy has at times clarified for us what Christian Scripture says to us. On the other hand, speculative philosophy, especially Neo-Platonism, has led Christian theology far from its source in the teachings of Jesus and His apostles. How did this uneasy relationship develop — and how did it get started?

Fortunately for us, Scripture answers the latter question in Acts 17, which describes a dramatic encounter in Athens, philosophy's mother city, between the apostle Paul and representatives of two schools of Greek thought, Stoicism and Epicureanism. Politics may make strange bedfellows, but so did philosophy when Epicureans and Stoics teamed up to interrogate a Christian. The Epicureans, who taught that the universe evolved from chance collisions of atoms, were basically atheistic materialists; the Stoics, who believed that a higher purpose infused and guided the universe, were theistic "spiritualists." I put "spiritualists" in quotation marks because the Stoics' higher purpose was something that they called the Logos (word, meaning, reason, or purpose), a fiery substance that brought all other things into being and a spark of which resided within each human. For the Stoics, the Logos was also theos, divine. Given their beliefs, the Epicureans formed "stony ground" for Paul's teachings, but the Stoics were fascinated with Christian teaching on the Logos — Jesus, God's Son as the Word of God — which differed from Stoic teaching on that subject, but was still filled with meaning and purpose.

Some Christian scholars have taught that Paul's sermon to the philosophers who summoned him to Mars Hill was his worst sermon, an exercise in futility. Such scholars feel that Paul distorted his message to appeal to that audience. It was partly because I couldn't accept their teaching that I wrote Mars Hill: Paul v. the Philosophers. Certainly, one can take home from Paul's sermon the lesson that we should show courage like his: when life gives us a chance to proclaim the Christian message, we should take that chance. The court gave Paul a motive to explain the Christian message to the philosophers — and, through them, to us — in a new and clarifying light. In the end, his sermon produced the most important fruit of all: lives transformed by its message. Granting that the lives so transformed were few, we must recognize that Paul was sowing the Gospel's seed on stony ground. The wonder wasn't that few lives were saved; the wonder was that any were.

In the book, I take you step by step through Paul's confrontation with the philosophers and his message to them to make clear to you what time may have clouded for us who live some two thousand years after Paul's philosophical trial. I hope that, by the book's end, you can see that Paul's sermon at Mars Hill, far from being an exercize in futility, was a bold, clear proclamation of eternal truths, as relevant to us today as they were to the philosophers who heard them nearly two thousand years ago.

You can read the opening sections of Mars Hill: Paul v. the Philosophers by clicking on Look inside.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

WHY I WROTE HOPEWELL DREAMQUEST

For as long as I can recall, lost civilizations have fascinated me. I longed to visit their sites, but, as I thought that all of them were far from Michigan and Kentucky, where I've lived, I could see them only in books and in National Geographic. Imagine my chagrin when I read on a map of Ohio the legend Hopewell Culture National Historic Park. For all of my life, a lost civilization had been in my back yard and I hadn't known.

Inspired by my discovery, I read all that I could find on Mound Builders — ancestors of modern Native Americans, not Atlanteans, Ancient Egyptians, the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, or Vikings — but the core of my fascination with them remained the Hopewell Exchange. This rose out of the Adena Culture of central Ohio about 200 B. C. with the building of monumental earthworks: ceremonial centers miles long on hilltops or geometrical figures in units of thousands of feet in lowlands. As the earthworks were built by hand, their completion took centuries. The exchange lasted for around seven hundred years and then, for reasons still unclear to archaeologists, fell apart.

While I was reading about the Hopewell Exchange and visiting Hopewell sites in neighboring Ohio, I wondered about two questions that archaeologists still haven't fully answered: what social institutions held the Hopewell Exchange together for seven centuries, and how did those institutions fail? The driving force behind the Hopewells' centuries-long building projects was clearly a religious organization analogous to the Roman Catholic Church, which held Europe together for the centuries-long construction of cathedrals during the Middle Ages. Archaeologists have determined that the Hopewell's religious organization was shamanistic, revolving around four totemic animals: deer, eagle, bear, and wolf. The Hopewell shamans used symbols, and apparently communed with spirits, that have come down to today's Eastern Woodlands cultures. How the shamans were organized and how they lost their ability to keep a wide domain in peace are questions that archaeologists still want to answer.

Those questions are also seeds of a story if you write speculative fiction. For Hopewell Dreamquest, I assumed that the shamans had gained supernatural powers from fragments of an ancient meteorite that had formed a crater on the rim of which Serpent Mound now stands. When I began to plot the story, conventional archaeology taught that Serpent Mound had been built by the Fort Ancient Culture, much later than the Hopewell Exchange, so my notion of Serpent Mound's construction as a horizon event between the Adena Culture and the Hopewell Exchange was revisionist — likely wrong. I've since learned that William F. Romain of the University of Akron, who did think of Serpent Mound as Hopewell, has shown by radiocarbon dating that the mound did rise at the horizon between the Adenas and the Hopewells, so my wild idea seems to have been right. Maybe, my fiction isn't speculative after all.

As I studied the Hopewell, I grew fascinated with one of their common symbols — the cross within a circle. Likely, this symbol stood for the world's four quarters, but, for the story, I turned the symbol into a map of the Hopewell's religious/political world: four shamanistic centers each of which was dedicated to one of the totemic animals, and a common meeting ground at the center of the four. It was easy for me to map these to actual Hopewell centers in Ohio: the deer in the east at Marietta, the eagle in the south at Portsmouth, the bear in the west at Fort Ancient near Dayton, and the wolf in the north at Newark. The center in my story is the actual center of Hopewell earthworks, Chillicothe, where Hopewell Culture National Historic Park is today.

In the story, my viewpoint character is Gregory, a middle-aged man from central Kentucky whose forebears left him a field full of Indian mounds. Like many other Kentuckians, he has familial traditions of Native American ancestry, but doesn't know whether those traditions are true accounts or just stories made up by long-dead tricksters. I sympathize with Gregory; as a child of Kentuckians from the Appalachian Highlands, I grew up listening to elders in my mother's family argue whether they had Cherokee ancestry. Who knows whether they did have it? The truth is that some Cherokees, to avoid the Trail of Tears, tried to pass themselves off as white. If they did, they made sure of keeping their ethnicity secret from their white neighbors and from children who might blab dangerous facts. Hence, if your ancestors claimed to be Cherokee, they were almost certainly not.

In any case, as the story opens, Gregory is living a quiet life in which he has lucid dreams of visiting Native Americans who lived at his mounds centuries before. His quiet life ends when he falls in with others like him: persons of mixed, but mostly European, ancestry with a gift of lucid dreaming about Mound Builders. From those like him, he learns that the dreams can be shared and take the dreamers into the actual lives of Mound Builders. In their world, the dreamers can talk, travel, learn, and even fight and die. Gregory's companions from modern times aren't cut from savior cloth. Gregory himself wants to be a savior, but—

You can learn more of what he becomes if you read the novel. If you do, let me tell you something about how I've handled Hopewell culture and names. You'll soon notice that I have the Hopewells living much like Eastern Woodlands Indians when Europeans made contact with them. Archaeologically, my assumption is correct, as the Hopewell culture was similar and clearly ancestral to Eastern Woodlands cultures, with the major exceptions that the classical Hopewells knew nothing of war and had not adopted the bow and arrow or corn-based agriculture. As for the names of my Hopewell characters, I did what Europeans have often done with Native American names: I translated them into English. What else could I do? The Hopewells never developed writing and vanished by 500 A. D. I'd like to provide you with authentic Hopewell names, but, unless archaeologists do develop time travel, we'll never know those names.

My story will provide you with an answer to the questions that archaeologists ask: what kind of organization held the Hopewell Exhange together for seven centuries of a golden age, and what caused that organization to fail, precipitating the Hopewells' descendants into centuries of a dark age? The answer that I've given you is a fictional, fantasy-based one, but, if you learn it, I think that you'll agree with me when I say that an organization like the one that I describe had to exist, and its fall was terrible…

Gregory was dreaming of Indian mounds…

Hopewell Dreamquest is avaiable in Kindle format. You can read the book's opening chapters by clicking on Look inside.

Monday, March 20, 2017

KNIVES

by Alfred D. Byrd

I am a ghost, a spirit in pain
From a knife of steel that stabbed my heart,
From knives of lies that severed my trust
In kin and friends in a time of tests.
The knives alone remain in my mind;
The knives and darkness of night compose
My world, and no name will come to me
To tell me what task I’ve left undone
To earn my status of ghost tonight.
My name and station in life are blanks
In a mind that knows no more than fear
Of lacking knowledge, being alone.

A name is spoken! I hear and see
Inside a room containing a bed
Bespread with silk and shadowed with drapes.
Upon the bed is a man who sleeps
A sleep that will end, or one that won’t,
And I, poor ghost, should know how he sleeps,
And don’t, and will the sleeper to wake.

He stays asleep, but others are up
To pierce with knives the ghost above them.
“He seems to me too young to have died,”
A voice I know is saying, “and still
I know how often the knife will claim
A life before its end in nature.”

“You’re young to have such knowledge, Byron,”
A woman replies to him in tones
That thrill my ears and heart with knowledge
Of ties of kinship proclaimed, but shunned.
Who shunned them? I ask. Was she or I
The one who denied the ties of birth?
She pauses, then speaks a truth I knew:
“But one who grows to manhood as prince,
Or prince’s comrade, must know such grief.
My son was lucky to have a friend
Who knew his heart and mind, but loved him.”

“My son!” The woman beside the bed
Had been my mother before my death,
And now I know the body she mourns
As mine, and I look at it for signs
Of what and who has wrought its murder.
The body reveals to me no trace
Of the knives that cut its life away,
And I am thankful for arts of death
That make my corpse alive, but asleep.
I seem — my body appears — to rest
In hope of waking to light and joy,
But I, who hover above the bed,
Can savor neither blessing unless
I learn the cause and causer of death
That makes me observe the form of peace
With eyes, no eyes, that can see no peace.

My mother still speaks. She tells my friend,
“Of this death, my son cut off too young,
No man has told his father, the king,
Nor will, to keep his hours of dying
Unmarred by mourning the son he loved.
My husband may think, as life declines,
His line secure, and enter darkness
In hope of light from his loins to hold,
In the years to come, his throne in peace.”

A prince! I was a prince of the realm,
The prince intended to wear its crown.
The words my mother has said are knives
That tear my heart with the pain of loss
Of honor from lips that sing my praise,
Of power of life and death to wield.
I feel a crown encircle my brow
With gold of might, with gold of deceit--
The might, a thing of outward display;
Deceit, the knowledge of smiles and lies
From those who followed my steps for gain.

Too late I recall a loss more deep
Than loss of wealth or honor or praise:
My father dying! It seems to me
I had learned the news of loss to come
And rushed to reach his bedside in time
To gain his blessing, to do the right,
To win the praise of a son who showed
His father honor at end of days.
Before I reached him, the knife had struck,
And son preceded father in death.

Above the bed my body lies on,
Its spirit wonders who held the blade
That cut away the crown from my brow.
I had my share of foes, I recall,
A host of foes I had touched with pain
In my greed to hold a land in bonds,
But I fear the hand that held the blade
To be one of love, at least in show:
The hand of one I trusted in life
As much as trust resided in me.
I dare not reflect just now on why
I think of traitors and see myself.
Disturbed at heart by thoughts of treason,
I ask myself my causes to think
Of friends betraying my life to death,
And seek within and without the words
To give my killer at least a name.

“Your husband, my queen,” my friend replies
To her whose womb had shaped my body,
“Had pinned his hopes on his son to keep
His kingdom peaceful in times to come.
He saw his heir as a man of strength
With wisdom to chart the course ahead
And guide the people with love to right.”

My mother chuckles a sound of pain.
“My husband was blind. He saw his son,
A child of dotage, as what he wished,
A sage who held the mind of his sire,
And not the monster my womb had bred.
Can you, the friend of my son, now lost,
Deny the truth I have told of him?”

A monster! The word disturbs my heart,
But my mouth can speak no word to turn
To lie the name my mother gives me.
Byron, the friend who loved me in life,
Is silent also, spurning the chance
To spare my name from slander or spite.
Am I a ghost to hear my nature
Described in terms of loathing and fear
By those from whom I should hear of love?

Byron shivers. “The truth you proclaim
Is one no mother would want to hear
About her son. A monster he was,
Pleasant in jest if given his way,
If offered his due as first in place,
But swift to resent a ‘no’ or ‘wait’
To plans of his that would harm his cause
By making others see him as vile.
In time, my friend would have been the death
Of any who dared oppose his will,
And some will rejoice to see his end.
He was, however, the last to wear
The name of prince within the kingdom.
As soon as death shall claim your husband,
The land will lack an heir to its throne,
And blood will fill its streets far deeper
Than he, at worst, would have stained the realm.
For all his faults, his reign would have been
Less grim by far than chaos to come.”

How great a tribute my friend has paid
To one whose tongue can answer no charge
A realm, his kin, have laid against him!
I feel the anger, the spate of rage
That had been my strength in life, my bane.
I know, removed from the lures of life,
Its passions, quickly aroused and fed,
The truth of the charge my friend has made,
And I mourn the loss of time to mend
My ways and the pain those ways have bred.
Less grim than chaos! I hear the best
To be said in truth of me in death,
In which the tongues of lackeys need fear
No more the wrath that made them simper
To seek my praise and flee my curses.
My life was false, but my death bequeaths
My land no peace in freedom from me.
To hear the choice I gave my people,
Oppression, or streets defiled with blood—
Is this the task of the ghost I am?
If so, what word can release the ghost,
From hearing its doom, to realms of peace?

No word is spoken beside the bed
On which my body is laid in state.
My mother regards my corpse with eyes
That hold no tears, but seem more haunted
Than I myself have made the chamber.
Byron, silent, offers my mother
A hand in solace for loss of son,
For loss of husband, for loss of dreams,
And I begrudge the gesture he makes,
But know it truthful, as mine was not,
To seek my father before his death.
Indeed, my friend has known no mother,
His own having died upon his birth,
And I, for once the doer of right,
Received my friend as brother, though one
I bullied to make my will his own.
My mother offers Byron her gaze
And gives him a smile that speaks of pain,
A pain commingled with love and hope
For one more son than her son had been.
I see at last a truth I denied
In a life in which my name was praised,
The truth of a friend more loved than me
For virtues he had, but I disdained.

My mother moistens her lips and speaks.
“The chaos you fear need not arrive.
A plan was made — I speak of my shame,
But truth must come for peace to follow.
The barons who served the king in truth
Were filled with fear of his son as king,
But knew his father too filled with faith
In his son to hear the plan and nod.
They came to me in secret at night
And spoke of their plan, their lives at risk
If met by me as mother, not queen.
They found me willing to bear my pain
To save a kingdom my womb had cursed.”

My friend seems stricken. “My queen, your words,
If taken as said, must place your hand
Upon the hilt of the knife that claimed
The life of your son. Is what you say
Confession of guilt, or words of grief?”

His question is mine. Was I so vile,
So filled with spite my mother was forced
To direct my death for the good of all?

“Your question, Byron, divides a truth
Revealed as single to eyes that see.
My guilt and my grief are one at root.
My tongue consented to kill my son
And do my duty in days ahead.
My hand, however, has held no knife,
But given its hilt to hands more skilled
In taking of life than mine could be.
The barons drew straws, and he who lost
Was he who sent my son to his death.”

Is he who held the blade a hero,
I wonder, drifting above my corpse,
Or doomed, condemned to death for a deed
The world would praise if it heard the words
My mother has said to bare my sins
To herself, my friend, and me, unseen,
But held to earth by ties of sorrow?

<>Byron murmurs, “The baron did well
The work you gave him, but got as pay
The coin of traitors, a death of shame.
He stood, his hand defiled with blood,
As still and silent as wood or stone,
And let the guards who found him guilty
Harrow his life away from his flesh.
No man will praise his act of courage,
At least in open, in times to come.
How few could show such courage, to kill
And be killed, knowing one’s fate to be
Reviled and scorned by all as traitor.
Have you, my lady, told me the truth
So that one, at least, may praise his deed,
At least in secret? But who can praise
An act that will drench the land in blood?
No prince will take the throne, and his lack
Will make this act of courage folly
Unless some knowledge hidden from me
Reveals the land a path to safety.”

My mother chuckles again. “My son
Chose well his friend, and I will follow
His choice in telling his friend the truth.
Your questions, Byron, are linked, and have
One answer, holding the key to peace.
I tell you the truth because I must
Make known to him who will wear someday
The crown of kings how it reached his head.
Your father, Byron, widowed long years
By your birth, which sent his wife to death—
Your father, tireless to serve the realm,
Perhaps to dull his grief for his wife,
Will marry the queen to wield her crown
And win his son the status of prince.
Your fate, as friend of my son, will be
To undo the deeds that won your friend
The sentence of death, and found a line
Of kings who will rule in peace and truth—”

My friend is shaken, hearing the news
The queen has told him. “Your words are strange!
I wanted no crown, and least my friend’s!
I feel unworthy to take his place
Upon the throne. Cannot another,
No ghoul who feeds on flesh of comrade,
Assume his place more cleanly than I?”

My mother, shaking her head, is firm.
“The trait, reluctance, with which you greet
The news of honor unsought and grave
Is best assurance you are the man
Who ought to receive the crown you dread.
The soul who hungers for fame and might
Will wield it only to gain his ends;
The one upon whom a throne is thrust
As a task unsought that must be done
Will do his duty through tears and joy.
The people need you, Byron, today
To stand beside your father and me
And give the land its promise of peace.
The dawn is breaking! It’s time to go.
We’ve mourned my son through years of his fall
And sat beside him a night of wake.
Today let’s do the work that was his
And honor his choice of you as friend,
The choice of God of me as mother,
By serving his land as he could not.
My son, who take the place of my son,
Your path is set before you. Walk it!”

A queen and a prince arise, and leave
A ghost alone to face the daybreak.
Its light reveals to me my evil
As something I loved upon the earth,
As something I loathe, released from life.
I wish I could do my part to heal
The wounds my hands have made in my land.
Others will have to perform my task,
And I must cede them honor and might.
I wish I could stand beside my father
And hold his hand in his hour of death.
My friends will have to do my duty,
Sending him onward with rites of love.
I ask a boon of what has made me
A ghost, instructed in lies and truth:
Allow my father, released from life,
To see his son, released from his sin,
Redeem the chance to show his father
Honor that seeks no reward but love.
I ask for mother and friend to find
The strength to carry their work, once mine,
To the end they seek. Their task is harsh,
The burden of slaves to life on earth,
And I no longer envy or scorn
The lot of others, noble or base.
They’re bound, though living, to strive and die,
To rise today, to fall tomorrow,
And I, though murdered, a ghost, am free,
Enabled by what I heard by night
To see myself for what I had been.
I need no longer be so in death,
For freedom is mine, the gift of light.
Exposed to sunshine, my life becomes
A mist dissolving within the dawn,
A spark returned, made pure, to the fire.


If you liked this poem, you may like my other works in verse, some of them free, available at my profile on Smashwords.