Between the Mountain and the Moon
By Rose Lemberg
2 July 2012
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.
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,
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
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
In this season of bleached bone
we'll chase snowrat and cloudhare,
claw the black mountain frost
for the sleeping frogs of the stars.
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.
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
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.