Helen Wickes

Grendel’s Brother

So. They’re gone now,
my dam and my only brother. Taken
from me. Into the unliving, I guess.
We are frightened by night, so no wonder
we frequent the far-off castle, lit
from within. (Lit, I suspect,
by sunshine, which humans have taken hostage,
and subdued there.) Pulled as we are
to mead-halls, Mother and Brother for the sport and food,
but me for the goings-on, the torchlit sight
of gold on a woman’s neck, for the glimpse
of creatures at their ease, pouring themselves
into song and speech. Even their grief
has a word-weaver. Their dogs
sniff me out and howl, their horses whinny,
humans never see me: softened stone,
we’re made of, the hardened fog as well.
I stare and listen. And steal
from their word-hoard.
I memorize what are called things, how the words
shade and qualify. Suggest and deny. And so
though I’m not written into the story, can’t you
feel me, this margin-prowler, this haunter
of mid-line pauses, the throat-catch
as you turn the page?
Every lullaby, sea-chant,
serenade, wedding ode, war salvo, burial dirge.
Bard’s creation song too. I know
by heart. How they sing
about us: Hell-reaver, Hell-dam,
harrowers of earth, they call us,
but what about me—monster who whimpers,
moor-coward, sissy of the kesh, lurker,
loser, misbegotten kin of Cain
dreaming his way. Quickened earth,
we are. But I’m last
of my kind, don’t fancy
the female human. Peeling off her pelt
to bathe and sleep. Not like my mam.
Sending me out to avenge
my brother. How can I? With what?
Slinking to the moors I mourn.
Then her as well, her lease-hold snapped,
left me missing their voices:
Swipe us a few brook-salmon,
go break the fragrant branches
for our beds, mind your brother, catch me
a squirrel
, she orders,
I obey. Cowering. Cheerful.
Proud of the treasure-trove of speech
I give them—with which she growls
for more purple berries
plucked from brambled thickets.
We’re made from calcinated water: These words I gave them,
plus another nine hundred seventy-six.
Without me, they grunted
and snarled, in just eighty-three sounds,
to be exact. You’re not like us,
Grendel said, you can’t stalk, can’t
hunt, can’t seize. You inspire
no fear. You have small feet
Which I do, but always meant to tell him,
We are the sublimated bronze.
Go bring fresh eggs
from the rushes
and not to break a one
, he called—he was her bairn,
her cub raiding the castle,
rousing fate. Who’ll roust me now
from the mere, who will poke my ribs
to beg a ballad? Grabbing sweet kernels
of walnuts I shelled as they gobbled
my words. Dragon-bounty
of luminous speech. Th a real trial,
pl was too. They puffed and blew, but a little language
made them greedy for more.
The tempered stone we are,
or the coagulated smoke
That last one sounds better, don’t you think?

Helen Wickes
Grendel’s Brother is from In Search of Landscape (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2007).