Harp & Altar
Roberta Allen

Stephen-Paul Martin

Eileen Myles

Joanna Ruocco
from The Mothering Coven

David Wirthlin

from The Mothering Coven
Joanna Ruocco


Leaves used to pile on one side of the house, and now they pile on the other. The wind has changed direction. And who is subscribing to all these magazines?

Agnes closes the kitchen window. She checks the herring. No bubbles.

“The oven isn’t even on,” says Agnes.

“It must be a Bismarck,” says Mrs. Borage. “You never cook a Bismarck.”

Mrs. Borage has a logical mind. She sits in her rocking chair, snipping pictures from The Helsinki Winki. The pictures are better than the articles. Mrs. Borage wonders if it is the Finnish language that she finds objectionable.

“Or else I don’t have the patience for very long words anymore,” thinks Mrs. Borage. Mrs. Borage stands up.

“I caught a herring once,” announces Mrs. Borage, “in Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg.” Mrs. Borage sits down.  

“That felt wonderful,” says Mrs. Borage. It’s settled then; she objects to the Finnish language.

Mrs. Borage picks up her scissors. She is snipping pictures of the Finnish National Hockey Team. Mrs. Borage does not object to Finnish hockey players. Mrs. Borage is about to turn one hundred, but she can still appreciate a Schatzilein.



Agnes folds the laundry—Bertrand’s crimson gambeson—she’s washed it again. Laces, broken. Stuffing coming out. Is that mildew? Agnes looks closer. Death caps have sprouted along the quilting. Pale green diamonds on a crimson field. The sickly yellow fringe, that’s honey tuft, and the leather collar, trompette de morts. Agnes heaves the gambeson back into the dryer drum.

“The tenth, or tithe, is often given to the Imperium,” says Agnes, to no one in particular.

“But we weren’t ten,” says Bryce.

“Agnes, Bertrand, Bryce, Fiona, Dorcas, Hildegard, and Ozark” says Dorcas. “Mrs. Borage, eight.”

Besides, is Europe still the Imperium? There are so many abandoned castles, so many unemployed knights, entire orders in desuetude.  The Esoteric Order of Night-Blooming Phlox. The Order of Brücken. The Noble Order of Girdle. The Order of Pussywillow. The Order of Radish.



Bryce has taped Bertrand’s postcards to the refrigerator door, to the microwave door, to the television screen. Now she is coating them with polyurethane. She adds a bit of moss to Lake Nero, to simulate an algal bloom. Over here—silica flakes! They give a badly needed glimmer to the deserts of Poland.

Bryce imagines Bertrand in the deserts of Poland. Will Bertrand see the white and gold Polish eagle? Will she see Queen Wanda the Drowned?

The moss absorbs a good deal of polyurethane. Bryce has a terrible headache. Headaches are always the danger with the plastic arts.



The telephone on the mantel is tiled with mirrors, sunflower seeds, golden nuggets of bee pollen, and, of course, the delicate skins of glue Bryce peels from her fingers, nine whorls and a pollex loop, repeating. Agnes has a sudden urge to pick it up.

“Hello?” says Agnes.

“ZZZZZZZZZ!” says a collective voice. Agnes hangs up, puzzled.

“A dial-tone?” asks Agnes. As far as Agnes knows, the phone has never been connected.



Mrs. Borage is in the yard, raking leaves into enormous piles. The wind keeps carrying the leaves away.  They fly back and forth past the dining room window.

“Should we help her?” asks Bryce.

“Her movements are so regular,” says Fiona. “It must be a form of raking meditation.”

Now Mrs. Borage is carrying rocks from the garden, rocks and cabbage heads and dried pumpkin vines and red lettuce hearts, big armfuls.

“She’s weighing down the piles,” says Dorcas. “That’s very clever.”

Mrs. Borage goes back and forth, back and forth, from the piles to the garden.

“It looks fun,” says Ozark. Bryce is putting on her green mackintosh. She’s been meaning to make leaf lapel-pins for quite awhile now, and maybe a catkin sash.

“I’ll get the wheelbarrow,” cries Dorcas. Fiona blocks the doorway. We look at her.

“No sudden moves,” says Fiona. “We can’t interfere with the Theta-brain.”

“The Theta-brain,” says Dorcas. “Of course.” We cluster again at the dining room window. We try to peer less obtrusively. This involves curtains.

“Achoo,” sneezes Ozark. Fiona glares. We glare. We peer between the curtains.

If Mrs. Borage is jolted from her trance too soon, she could be trapped: her soul on a shamanic journey, her body piling cabbage heads on oak leaves, back and forth, back and forth, for all of time.



Suddenly, Mrs. Borage stops, her arms filled with bottle gourds. She realizes that she has built eight cairns on the front lawn. They give the property a somber aspect. This is not at all what she intended.

“Fiddlesticks,” curses Mrs. Borage. Mr. Henderson comes out of the Colonial next door, covered in clay. He is a potter and very fond of Mrs. Borage.

“Hello, Mrs. Borage,” says Mr. Henderson. He regards the compost heaps, towers of harvest vegetables, rotting. He has a feeling that death is near.


Mr. Henderson thinks about death a great deal, alone in his garage, spinning and spinning his bowls until they’re so thin he can see his hands through the walls, like the bowls are made of glass. He pulls the walls up, higher and higher, narrow shafts that hold for an instant, tall and translucent—glass reeds, glass flutes—before collapsing again, into mud.


The smell of wood-smoke is in the air. Of course, Mr. Henderson sees the faces of the dead in the wrinkles of the cabbage heads. We all do.

“I don’t,” says Mrs. Borage, stubbornly. She still sees with her Theta-brain, which gives her a distant perspective, as though she is flying above the surface of the Earth. Mrs. Borage sees topological formations, for example, the shallows of Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg.

There is Mrs. Borage, far below, casting for herring, casting into a cold wind, wearing squirrel fur. The hook lands behind her in the fanwort.

Mrs. Borage shivers.

The ground is whitening between the cairns. Deep within the non-Euclidian curvature of the lettuce hearts, tiny ice crystals are forming.

Mr. Henderson is a large, shy man who knows nothing about Euclid. He knows that he would like to mold a piece of clay into a lettuce heart and give it to Mrs. Borage. He’s so excited to get started he almost runs back to his house without saying goodbye, but he remembers just in time.

“Goodbye, Mrs. Borage,” says Mr. Henderson, shyly, but Mrs. Borage is still gazing into a lettuce heart.

“Does this look like the physical universe?” asks Mrs. Borage. Mr. Henderson takes the lettuce heart. He had always thought the physical universe had no shape at all, just a multi-directional nothingness with deep space objects floating around at varying speeds. He realizes that he has been ridiculous. All these dark folded places, opening everywhere at once—of course, that’s what the physical universe looks like.

Mr. Henderson can’t make a lettuce heart now. It’s far too daunting. He leaves Mrs. Borage to her compost heaps and goes inside his drafty Colonial. He makes tomato soup on the utility stove. He drinks tomato soup, alone in the dark, big house. His eyes hold no expression. They are big and blank, like the eyes of the blue-back herring, like the eyes of Abraham Lincoln, like the holes in a glass flute, shattering.



We sit in a circle on the carpet, eating cinnamon toast from a large platter. The cinnamon toast is very hard and brown, with clear butter dripping. Everyone is chewing cinnamon toast. Mrs. Borage listens to the reports of cinnamon toast. The burnt cinnamon smells oddly like gunpowder.

“Taken orally, and at low velocity, gunpowder extends the life expectancy,” remembers Mrs. Borage. Bryce jumps to her feet.

“Fireworks!” shouts Bryce.

In the rubble of the Security Spray Complex, Ozark has found the remnants of a Gypsy encampment. It is a snow-covered flannel backpack. The rest of the encampment has vanished without a trace. Ozark is suddenly afraid that her inventory is suffering from logocentrism. Shouldn’t there be more untraceable encampments? More vanishings?

She unzips the flannel backpack. It is filled with delights, beers and spray paints, cigarettes, a Jacob’s ladder of prophylactics, all kinds of sparklers, bombs, and rockets.  Luckily, there is a pink lighter in the front compartment. Ozark never carries a lighter, or loose change for that matter, or tissues. Something has always worked out.

Mrs. Borage sees a woman climb onto the battlements. She is hurling flares into the sky. Do the flares make an eight-pointed star?

Yes, the lesser conjunctions of Venus shower down, glowworms and ashes.



Everyone looks at the platter on the carpet. It is empty.

“Do you remember eating anything?” asks Dorcas.

The parlor is a mess. The wingback chairs have been tipped over; the card table is broken; the tank has shattered, and the clownfish! They lie dry and dead on the carpet. Bryce flips over the nearest card. It is from the pinochle deck. A young man, with a feather in his hat, and a mustache. He doesn’t look healthy. The love disease.

“Am I disgraced in fortune?” wonders Bryce. She opens up the daily paper.

“Align with the syzygy,” reads Bryce. What kind of horoscope is that?

“I just wrote it because I like the word ‘syzygy,’ ” remembers Bryce.

What did she write for Mrs. Borage?

“This one is inspiring,” says Bryce.

“You shall rend the veil of the phenomenal world,” reads Bryce. She looks at Mrs. Borage expectantly.

“Inspiring,” nods Mrs. Borage. Which veil is Bryce referring to?

“She must mean the vale of tears,” thinks Mrs. Borage. “They always mean the vale of tears unless specified.”



Agnes comes back with cinnamon toast. It is terrifically burnt.

“Thank you!” says Dorcas.

“Thank you,” says Fiona. Dorcas has started thinking about witches, how they can turn into cats and regain themselves eight times, but the ninth time they stay cats forever.

“What about shamans?” thinks Dorcas. She crunches her cinnamon toast.

“Thank you!” says Dorcas.



Mrs. Borage’s teeth have never given her a moment’s trouble. Agnes’s teeth are square, but serviceable. Bryce’s teeth are tiny and resplendent. Dorcas feels oral shame: her pig laterals, her crooked bicuspids. Fiona’s caries do not enter into her psychic register. Behind Ozark’s shy smile: an inner ring of milk teeth, weaker and smaller, but tenacious, like shade plants.

No cinnamon toast for the foreign student Hildegard. She’s still sleeping in the room beneath the stairs. Agnes is beginning to wonder if she mustn’t be enchanted.

“Adolescents do need large amounts of sleep,” says Agnes. Are they all enchanted? At least a little bit.


When Hildegard was awake, she listened to her small silver headphones at the dining room table and she emptied pixie sticks into her yogurt.

“Pink tastes best,” said Hildegard.

“It’s some kind of synaesthesia,” said Dorcas. Mrs. Borage closed her eyes.

“Pink,” murmured Mrs. Borage. “Yes, it tastes like salmon.”

Agnes watched Hildegard eat the pink yogurt. Hildegard sang to herself, eating.

“Can’t you hear my love buzz? Can’t you hear my love buzz? Can’t you hear my love buzz?”

She wouldn’t like it if Agnes answered. Agnes learned not to answer the questions someone is singing from Bertrand.

“Can I try the salmon yogurt?” asked Mrs. Borage. She took a spoonful.

“Oh yes,” said Mrs. Borage. “It is delicious.”


Dorcas cracks her slice of cinnamon toast; Fiona cracks her slice of cinnamon toast; Agnes, crack; Ozark, crack.

Crack! Cinnamon toast between the interminable teeth of Mrs. Borage.


Bryce hangs her cinnamon toast from the hat-stand. It is terrifically burnt. She will call the hat-stand, “After the Tunguska Fireball,” in honor of all the catastrophists born beneath the burning sky in Siberia.



“Mmmm,” sighs Mrs. Borage. She pops open a bottle of cranberry mead, and she holds the bottle in the crook of her arm. The mead is cold in her mouth and hot in her chest, as though the mead starts at Axel Heiberg, and flows south, Crane Creek, Horse Creek, Turkey Creek, converging at last in the Indian River.

“It would make sense if humans had several esophagi,” thinks Mrs. Borage. “On the principle of tributaries.”

Why don’t they?

“That might be where evolution went wrong,” thinks Mrs. Borage. “Unless it was elsewhere.”