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Old Rufus

What can you say of a man who dressed

in summer like it’s winter
with heavy top-coat, faded corduroys
and moth-eaten gray sweater,
even hid his face from sun with
eye-brows caterpillar thick and crawling
toward his nose, bushy moustache, white
beard supplanting chin, curtaining throat.
And when he came and went on no fixed time-table,
secretive and solemn, more versed in bird calls
than King's English, who bothered to ask
how does he live, when our own business
clutched us tighter than our collars.
So he makes creatures do his bidding:
deer and dogs, cats and rabbits.
Where's the trade in that?
And the sudden bouts of chattering...
headless women on hills, phantom badgers
in the underbrush, ghostly knights on horseback.
May as well listen to the moon.
And the toads he bred, hopping through his house,
flooding his wild garden with grisly gray bounds...
more fecund than the squire's Cavalier spaniels
some young buck joked.

A few brought him bread and vegetables

in exchange for wart cures.
So what was he doing in Dawson's far field
at the fervid tick of midnight, wielding a shovel?
A kind of waltz, Miss Edith said.
Possession, taking a quack's cure for rheumatism,
just plain insanity.

Local poacher found him in the morning,
sprawled beneath a willow-tree.
Contorted terror bagged his last expression.
It wasn't a shovel they'd seen but a pitch-fork,
and it had turned on him,
penetrated his lank body and six inches of earth besides.
A splayed toad was sketched in blood-stain on the tree-trunk.
A raven cawed endlessly from an upper bough but the one
who could have translated was dead.

I remind you of this, though it happened five years ago,

because the killer remains unnamed.
And the terror that grips our village
won't lift a finger to release us.
And there's the toads to consider,
long after lightning scrapped his house,
his garden sought solace in encroaching woodland,
his body joined its fellow paupers in the grave,
the toads have spread far beyond their old
leaping grounds, are everywhere.
Main street is awash with them.
People are fearful of opening doors and windows,
but, even with a jailer's care, still those
amphibians slime their way in.
We tried to squash the beasts but amphibian algebra
equated one dead to three born.
Poison killed more pets than vermin.
The church altar is a bouncing sea of bodies and legs.
God worship exited the same day as the pastor.
Consensus was Old Rufus was a witch and this is his vengeance.
But why toads...why all of us...why not a late night
garroting of the culprit or, if toads must be the medium,
why not a fat specimen crawling down the killer's throat,
jamming up his wind-pipe.

And why do we stay, when this plague devours our food,
our warmth, our comfort, until we're nothing but
bent-back, crick-boned, spindly mirrors of their old master.
Revenge, alas, speaks in the language of the shuttered voice.
Thus the eye-pecking by sparrows, the temple-kick of elk,
dog snarl, catch scratch, and the chill of summer days.
And forget toad skin-oil razing warts.
These days those growths never had it so good.
They're like brooding sculptures in gnarled skin
and their people are shrinking.

John Grey is an Australian poet, US resident, recently published in Orbis, Dalhousie Review and Connecticut River Review. Latest book, “Leaves On Pages” is available through Amazon.

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