Between the Mountain and the Moon

By Rose Lemberg

For Izlinda Hani Jamaluddin

They say that in the oldest of times, the moon was always full; and sometimes she walked the world, changing shape as she would, and taught some others to do so.

Movement the First: Transformed

[The Black Panther]:

    Out of my sisters I alone was born unspotted

    under my mother's golden pelt, night-bodied in her warmth.

    She nuzzled me away. Alone, I curdled on winter branches,

    wrapped myself in the hunt. Birthed silence with each breath.

    Day after day the mountain skewered the water

    falling earthways, and the snow like milk

    melted sharp under my tongue.

    I hunted the spotted doe of the moon,

    followed her on mothersoft paws.

    Unseen, even in dreams—

    only the moon saw me

    quick-quick as she darted through the raingrass away.

    I danced the sky on her smell-threads,

    trusting the trees to catch my fall.

[The Moon]:

    She leaps the cloudwood to me,

    pelt as softest dark between

    breath and another breath—

    she dreams she hunts me through that emptiness

    where young winds wrestle, where the grass grows tall

    above the mountain. I have seen a house

        under its sleeping shadow, where a mother

    weary from stillbirths, waits each night

    with love like milk.

    Listen, lithe child, little child,

    night-in-the-night-child—

    once a winter pine wept on my sleeves,

    once a black walnut wept on my shoulder.

    I'll dip these needles into ink:

    hush, lissome, I'll write you a skin-story,

    I'll teach you a girl-shape,

    tell you into a mother's orphaned house.

Movement the Second: Duet with Moon and Mountain

1.

[The Girl]:

    At the gate, lanterns moan

    under the limber fingers of the wind. Mother comes out quilt-warm

    with a pail of milk, and her eyes

    like the serving-women's, carefully averted.

    No, I will not go in, clothe

    in your padded garments, or veil

    this needle-traced skin. I care not that young men

    never ask for me, that pines tilt away,

    that even the wind shuns me—

    the spotted cat of the moon

    my sistersoft leopardess

    curls nightlong by my side, murmurs

    hunt stories.

    In this season of bleached bone

    we'll chase snowrat and cloudhare,

    claw the black mountain frost

    for the sleeping frogs of the stars.

[The Suitor]:

    Ah, this gate. The northeast wind has long peeled

    its bashful paint away, pressed

    caress after wild caress into the surrendering flesh of the wood.

    Some nights, the groaning

    shames the people in. Pretending decency,

    they splash boiling river into clay; heads tilted

    ever so politely to the east, they stir their tea

    and veil the windows with seed-embroidered cloth.

    Nothing like this ever lasts.

    But lately, a young woman

    comes out to the gate alone, undaunted

    by the wind's lovemaking.

    She lifts her storyspelled face, and her hair

    falls back like a moan of night.

    Listen, girl-woman,

    shining woman, still woman,

    skinwild woman, dreaming-fast woman—

    I will go in, where they keep fire captive

    in the deceitful embrace of glazed brick.

    I will gift

    garnet and oystershell to your kinswomen

    and ask for their unmarriageable daughter.

                            2.

                            [Girl:]

                            Sometimes at night, when every stone in slumber

                            and every tree is pacified in matted frost

                            breathed out by starlight, I am waking;

                            uncoiling self to spotted moon,

                                    I muscle in the beast inside;

                                between the clouds we curl together

                                    until she melts into the dawn

                                        and I, into this flesh

[Suitor:]

    Down by the mirrorlake they comb

    my wild-grass hair with pearl and abalone; on the slopes

    they gift me with garnet to flicker around my waist

        where tiger and mountain cat, deer and wild hare

            adorn my coat. And only in this town

    they had forgotten about me, for while I slept

        they thought themselves safe from obligation.

    Yet now that I wake, I do not rage

        at their foolish moth-fluttering lives,

            for she has snarled in my shadow.

    Oh, I've been waiting for long years, polished my sleeves against the night;

    Counting bloodbeats, shaman-hands against the earthskin of my ribs.

    Play me, flowering dark—I long to be released

    from your embrace,

    and flood the heart of my beloved.

Movement the Third: At the Fire Festival

On the evening the starcounters have predicted a lunar eclipse, people come together under the burgeoning moon; dressed in garments of burnt umber and roped with cinnabar, they carry tigerlily torches and revel to the sounds of iron drums as the drum of the sky is devoured by shadow. It is said that at the Fire Festival one meets one’s true love, or else is swept by the sleeve of death.

            [Mother]: dancers    arrogantly young

            in spring's best, and this my child sewed nothing

                    in my late sister's garment. Still, it becomes her—

                seed-embroidery over indigo

                    almost as dark as her eyes. Is it in my womb

            that she was decorated so? What invisible fire

            reached into me and danced over her features,

                leaving this bitter char in its wake?

                        Here, at the fire festival

                    torches bloom; girls, twirling like gadfly wings,

            sweep firecloth against the sweetness of pipe and percussion.

                        Every girl    how I wish I was young still

                followed by suitors springing everywhere like moths from larvae.

                            Is he coming for her    that worthless

                                belted in seed garnet    like he said

                    arrogant in grass-wool        his eyes like opals

                            and each sleeve    conceals a knife

                        and each sleeve sails over the air like stringed bow,

                            voice    treacherous

                                like the voice of the ironframe drum—

                            this one should be right for my daughter,

                                    I often wonder how she's mine.

                [Girl:] oh spotted maiden, mirrored in every river

                        beloved huntress, laughing over each glade—

                    come, pluck me from this pinwheel of suffocating light

                            from the whirligig of steps to the smell of reed and blood,

                        to where there is only silence.

                    And if you are gone,

            my heart will refuse its drumming.

                I will chase spirit-deer in the forests of regret,

                    I will leap over the antlers of ash-trees, follow the scent

                        of the bone-birch and the marrow-maple;

                            hunt—where there is no moon—

                        that shadow-hunter who pursues me.

                He comes from the mountain

            in the cold of the night, when I am alone; measures

                each of my breaths with his fireweed eyes.

                            Fire.

                    I look up and see

                        a roaring through the clotted veins of the sky

                            has swallowed the forests.

                Life-destroyer, in my veins

                    your blood is home,

                        your blood is like my own.

                            Your blood is me—and she is not with me,

                                if she is not with me, where shall I go?

                He comes, he comes in coal-embroidered red

                    roiling from the slopes in woven smoke and ash

                        to dance the firedance in this ghostbone town

                            to dance the firedance with me, or with no-one.

            No, mother. Flee if you want,

                    Flee if you want, but I will stay here.

Coda

They say that the moon descended to the burning town in the shape of a golden leopard, and where she stepped, the lava turned into cold black glass; and some say she came as a maiden, her amber face tattooed with moon-circles, her eyes as dark as winter blood. Dressed only in her starwoven hair she walked unafraid, looking for the one in whose voice the ghosts of reedpipes still whispered, whose heartbeat echoed in the melted iron of the drum—

    the black leopardess

    with pearls of black under her fur

No people remained there to witness, but when they returned with incense and woven offerings to rebuild the town again in winter-hardened stone, she came to them often in dreams

    as soft as breath—you see her curled against her lover's shining

        and growing fatter from the hunt each night

            above the mountain

Black against yellow they make the moon together, casting their long silences into the mirrorlake below like fishing lines after the fallen autumn leaves. And when the moon is new, the spotted maiden walks the world unseen to teach her word-music to those who can hear it;

    and where lake is pearl, and deer and mountain-cat

    are moonstone slivers in his wild-grass hair

        when moon is full,

    the black leopardess leaps down

        to prowl his slopes as night is long,

            to whisper to him as the night is long.


Rose Lemberg's short stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and other venues, and her poems in Apex, Goblin Fruit, Jabberwocky, and other venues. Her Strange Horizons poem "In the Third Cycle" has won the Rannu competition in the poetry category. Rose is the founder and co-editor of Stone Telling, a magazine of boundary-crossing poetry; she recently edited The Moment of Change, an anthology of feminist speculative poetry featuring the work of Ursula Le Guin, Nisi Shawl, JT Stewart, Delia Sherman, Vandana Singh, and many brilliant others (Aqueduct Press, 2012), and Here, We Cross, an anthology of queer and genderfluid poetry (Stone Bird Press, 2012). Please visit her website, http://roselemberg.net, and her Livejournal blog.

Comments

A beautiful and haunting poem written by one beautiful person for another. I'm so glad to see this shared with the wider world.

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