How High’s the Water, Momma?
When I was a kid I was afraid of Johnny Cash. His music hit like a storm, so that the mere mention of his name was enough to conjure up black clouds and whirling winds in my childish mind. I didn’t know him, had never even met him, but when a girl in my class said she was related to him it was enough to send chills down my back. Country music was what my family tuned-in to in those days, and Johnny Cash was country music (all others, to include the hillbillies before and after, being mere imposters). Such was the living legend of “The Man in Black” down where I am from.
It wasn’t the prison associations he fostered that frightened me, nor his priestly black, frock coats, nor his towering physical presence, nor even the deep bass of his voice, although any of those things could be scary enough in their own rights to a seven year old. It was his aura that unnerved me. It was the reverent way that people I knew and respected spoke about him, as though Johnny Cash was the Resurrection itself, or worse, that he might have actually sprung from that other place that we were not allowed to talk about. Johnny Cash seemed larger than life back in the early 1970’s, and capable of any and everything. For instance, my Memaw would say with certainty to everyone gathered around her television set that Johnny Cash was the very devil himself come up from Memphis, and this as she sang and clapped along to he and Mother Maybelle picking out the Wildwood Flower. How is a child to process such oxymoroneous (I just invented that word) behavior?
Later, when I was in my thirties, my wife and I moved to Hendersonville, Tn., where Johnny and June had a house on the lake. I saw them while shopping at the local Lowe’s one day, she carrying a list as she scurried up and down the aisles, he struggling to keep up on the little electric handicapped cart, his bowed head humble and gray. Any unresolved fear I harbored was lifted at the sight of it, he being so obviously near his end, and yet I felt that same shiver I’d felt when my little classmate, Angie Cash, had told us all so long ago that she was somehow his kin. I never would have believed that day in Lowe’s that Johnny could somehow survive June, and looking back on it I wish he hadn’t. Her death left him even more broken than the turncoat, ”keep up with the times” country music industry had.
Johnny is gone now, and it is still debatable which direction he traveled from Tennessee, north or south, but he left behind a discography of greatness to remember him by; a plethora of songs to remind us in their simplicity and lyric, from rockabilly to gospel, that our time here on Earth is short, just as his was, and that there is something worth considering after… maybe even something to fear.
Just how high is that water, Momma?
Friday, the 13th
"Just renounce your God,"
. . . the heretic said,
"then I'll end this pain,
. . . and you shall be free."
I knew in my heart
. . . I'd rather be dead
than betray the Lord
. . . who died to save me.
In my mind I saw
. . . my true love, my wife,
and was not afraid
. . . to face my own death.
I said not a word
. . . though it meant my life,
but held my head high
. . . and took my last breath.
© 2023 - dustygrein
not all the crusading knights made it back home...
Author's Note: This poem was crafted in a form of my own creation, which allowed the prompt line to be used as written. The form is written in octaves, has a seldom used meter, and an even line rhymes scheme.
The meter, amphibracic dimeter catalectic, is purposely stilted and has 5 syllables, (tap, THUMP, tap, tap, THUMP). The rhyme pattern is [x a x b x a x b]. The formatting was difficult, since the even lines need to be indented, but the flow stayed true, and the scene played out. -- DG
Strange songs, haunting utterances, echoing from another time: I strive to hear them, and to understand their meaning. Dead men tell no tales. Perhaps that is why these words speak to me now.
Am I a victim of the times? I don’t believe so. I didn’t grow up in the hopeless, hungry side of town. Rather, the particular accident of my birth afforded me with all the advantages that might be bestowed upon a member of the lesser gentry of England in the reign of George the Third. In short, I was blessed with a good education at one the finest schools in the land, Shrewsbury School, founded by royal charter in 1552. After coming of age, I had entered the sometimes esteemed and often profitable profession of the law, where I worked alongside some who had a far greater nobility of spirit than I would ever possess–as well as others whose character and instincts were every bit as base as my own.
I wear the black for the poor and beaten down, declaimed one of my more altruistic contemporaries. Though I recall his high-mindedness, I can no longer remember his name. It was my lot to find myself in chambers not with this pious soul, but with a man whose world-weary cynicism was a ready match for my own: unscrupulous and ready and bold. Yet his distrust of humanity was masked, for the most part, in a manner which I found nauseating. His smooth adroitness, glib tongue and keen perspicacity served his considerable ambition, even though he lacked any true spark of original thought: the provision of that, of course, was my function within our partnership. He was the lion, and received the lion’s share of praise for our accomplishments in court. I was merely the jackal. ‘Your way is, and always was, a lame way,’ spoke my colleague in law, critically. ‘You summon no energy and purpose.’ All true: yet he found his use of me.
I would don my own dusty black gown, and shabby wig, and take my place at the bench by his side, between copious amounts of port wine–my breakfast, luncheon and dinner. The learned profession of the law was certainly not behind any other learned profession in its Bacchanalian propensities. The poor, the beaten down, the desperate, would be paraded before us, and take their appointed place in the dock. If my companion’s eloquence, and my own lesser contributions, fell short of the mark from time to time, that was to be expected. Not all juries proved sufficiently capable of persuasion. But our successes were greater in number than our failures: and the liquid repast that followed the conclusion of each case was just as fine, regardless. It worried me not a whit when the judge would don his own scrap of black upon his scarlet robes–the cap of judgement, beneath which he would solemnly declare his doom: ‘May God have mercy upon your soul.’
Why should I be concerned? I was the idlest and most unpromising of men. I cared for no man on earth, and no man cared for me.
Until, that is, on the steps of the Old Bailey I met (for the second time) the woman who had impressed herself upon me to such an extraordinary degree in consequence of our first chance encounter. ‘Are you acquainted with our case?’ Miss M– had asked: to which I had replied, ‘I am part of your case.’ It was not every day, after all, that my companion in law and I would be called upon to defend a self-exiled French aristocrat accused of being a spy. Unto this gentle lady, who so piteously pleaded the accused’s case, I would give the solemn charge: ‘I shall be doubly industrious upon his behalf.’ I would endeavour to forget (at least for the duration of this trial) that I was a disappointed drudge.
And thus, little by little, my fate was sealed.
Thanks to the combined labours of the lion and the jackal, the young French aristocrat was released. In England, flawed though she might be, and sore weary though many of her instruments, such as myself, undoubtedly were, at least Lady Justice, standing aloft on the high pinnacle of the Old Bailey, still sought to be true.
The same could not be said across the Channel. The sordid iniquity and growing inequalities which bedevilled our benighted continental rival were legion. The tax for the state, the tax for the church, the tax for the lord, tax local and tax general, were to be paid here and to be paid there. ‘Repression is the only lasting philosophy,’ spoke one of the leading aristocratic minds of that day, the tyrannical uncle of the young man I had so recently defended. And yet the resentment of the lower classes against the unchecked excesses of their masters smouldered with greater intensity with each passing year. That most glorious of hours, the apex of Le Roi Soleil, had passed, and now the twilight of the French autocrats was upon them. It would conclude with a sunset drenched in blood: blood, and fire.
There were the moderate reformers who, doubtless, felt that they could steer the course of the coming storm: who felt that they could fan the flames, once lit, but still control the conflagration. They were much mistaken, as many of them would bitterly ponder on the final journey on the tumbril carrying them to their doom. Madame Guillotine, not Lady Justice, awaited them at the end of that journey.
Oh, but the fire went wild. A l’exemple de Saturne, la révolution dévore ses enfants.
Before the breaking of the storm, the young French aristocrat whom we had defended had sought to distance himself from his cruel peers. He had renounced his titles, and built a new life for himself, with Miss M–. An earnest man of liberal sensibilities, he had wanted no part in the oppressive regime in his homeland. But there were those who had sworn to send to oblivion every last member of his noble line. For these tormented souls, it was not enough that his hated uncle, Monsieur the Marquis St. E–, had been murdered in his bed.
The trap that had been set for the French emigre, to bring him back to his homeland on an errand of mercy, was cunning. Only one with the purest of hearts would have fallen into it. I would never have allowed myself to be so easily ensnared. That was one of many differences between myself and Monsieur D–, as he styled himself in his exile. Our characters were utterly opposed to one another. Our resemblances were confined to two spheres alone. First, there was no doubt (as had come to his remarkable aid during the trial at the Old Bailey) that we shared a striking similarity of build and appearance. The second was equally undoubted–at least to me. We both loved the same woman.
His second trial, in Paris, had been marked by the spirit of vengeance, not justice. One of the great heroes of the infamous Bastille, the good doctor who had suffered incarceration in that charnel house for eighteen years, had condemned the members of that family to death with his testimony. Lacking all hope for himself, he had pronounced God’s curse upon them: ‘They have no part in His mercies. And them and their descendants, to the last of their race. I denounce them to Heaven and to earth.’ But how was the doctor to know that his daughter would meet and fall in love with the last scion of that aristocratic lineage? How was he to know that his dread curse would one day imperil his own daughter and her unborn child?
Yet this is what the President of that dread court had declared: ‘If the Republic should demand of you the sacrifice of your child herself, you would have no duty but to sacrifice her.’
Oh, but the fire went wild. A l’exemple de Saturne, la révolution dévore ses enfants. And it burns, burns, burns.
The vote had been unanimous: the judgement final. ‘At heart and by descent an Aristocrat, an enemy of the Republic, a notorious oppressor of the People. Back to the Conciergerie, and Death within four-and-twenty hours!’
But as I received news of the verdict in a nearby tavern, I still had an ace to play. Before I could cash in.
By chance, it would seem, I had met with all the chief players within this final act of my life. That same chance that caused me to bear that vital resemblance to a doomed young aristocrat, a resemblance that had already saved his life once–and would do so once again. All chance–or, perhaps, fate–in this age of wisdom, this age of foolishness.
I had once spoken, with some bitterness, to my rival in love: ‘That’s a fair young lady to be pitied by and wept for by! How does it feel? Is it worth being tried for one’s life, to be the object of such sympathy and compassion?’ To which he had given no answer.
Now, I felt, I understood why.
Love is a burning thing
And it makes a fiery ring…
It should not have been easy, but if it was fated to be, then of course it was easy–this switching of places, this giving of one's life for the sake of another. It was a fair exchange: indeed, three lives would now be saved, of that I was certain. The sacrifice of a life up to now lived without purpose was a small payment in return.
I spoke not a word though it meant my life. Thus had Our Lord remained silent as He stood before Pontius Pilate. His silence had sealed His fate: but His death had unleashed the full force of Redemption. The Sinless One offered Salvation to all: poor sinful wretch that I am, I am content to save the lives of three, including the one whom I have come to hold most dear of all in this short life. I sit in my cell in the Conciergerie, I summon these thoughts, and it is enough. Lord, grant me courage to keep my own counsel but a little while longer.
Waiting here in my final abode, as my final night upon this earth passes, I find myself touched by all manner of strange thoughts, half-dreams and phantasms, snatches of conversation and of song. Strains of strange music float on the very edge of my imaginings: and like John of Gaunt, in these last moments I know myself a prophet new inspired. I ponder these two great cities that I have loved and hated so well, in the best and worst of times, certain in the knowledge that these ancient foes, on either side of the Channel, will strive mightily with one another in the days to come; and yet I perceive that a time will come when they will unite against a far more deadly foe than even this unhappy Revolution can summon forth. And in those far-off struggles, if I apprehend aright, the descendants of those lost to our affections now, on the far side of the wide Atlantic, will seek to renew the bonds of brotherly solicitude: the New World come to save the Old.
A new day approaches: my last day. It is always darkest before dawn. But I think I understand now the words of these strange songs, sung by the man in black, this latter-day child of the New World.
The Judge said, ’Son, what is your alibi?
If you were somewhere else, you won’t have to die’
I spoke not a word, though it meant my life…
I smile to myself. I am giving myself for the sake of Charles Darney’s wife. And this I see: an old woman, weeping for me on the anniversary of this day.
Nobody knows, nobody sees
Nobody knows but me…
There are footsteps in the corridor outside. The heavy bolt is drawn back, and the door slowly opens. A voice speaks from without, rough yet not unkindly.
‘It is time.’
Miles From Normal
I stopped being a kid
The day you sent me there to die
Emotions boiling to the brim
I said not a word though it cost me my life
Holding in these problems with a smile
I am miles from normal
Oh, but the fire went wild
I wear black not because it is
I wear black for the poor and beaten down
I wear black for those like me across the towns
The people who smile to hide something horrible
The people who are miles from normal
If I told that stupid bastard once, I done told him a jillion times. I reckon now he’ll never learn, neither. I told him, Tyler, you can eat whatever’s in the house, you can put your feet up wherever you want, and you can give old Charlene here a little slap when I mouth off, honey, but you can’t, and I repeated to his big, stupid, face that didn’t listen, I repeated: don’t you ever fuck with my Nana’s glass statue. Nana had been a rich woman but kept most of it to herself, letting it slip through her fingers for us to catch like we was puppies under a mommy dog with titties fulla milk, but Nana loved me best. I done explained to this life support system for a cock and balls that my Nana’s statue was all I had of her, and she’d been the only nice one in the family, least to me. When Mama would make me chicken fingers most every night, Nana made me real food; stuff she made by hand like a fucking kitchen sorcerer. Mama said if it took more than reheating, it wasn’t worth it, and that I sure as shit wasn’t worth it. So you can sure as shit bet that the day after graduation, I packed up whatever shit I had outta the double wide and left Mama swearing up a storm in the smoke of her Benson and Hedges Menthol Ultra Lites 100.
Now back to Tyler and how that dumb shithead got his.
He’d been working long hours at the factory, trying to save up some money to buy a real hog, instead of the rusty bucket of scraps and bolts he called a motorcycle. That shit was held together with spit, sadder, and hope on a good day. Not great surprise that it was on its last, broken legs, so Tyler’d been working hard. Hard enough to make him forgetful of my one, hard and fast rule: don’t ever fuck with my Nana’s glass statue. Well, while I was out that night, pulling a shift down at the local strip club, Tyler came home, already drunk, drank every last beer in the goddamned fridge that I’d bought that afternoon, and proceeded to smoke one of his cowboy-killers, a Camel unfiltered for the judgmental non-smokers out there, to plunk his muddy shoes on my coffee table, shelling and shucking peanuts in every direction, drinking my favorite beer, with no coaster. After a long night of showing my titties off to ugly men for a dollar a pop, I could have forgiven Tyler for all of it. Well, probably. What I saw next, though, threw a switch on in my head; you know, like in them cartoons? When the mad scientist flips the switch to start Frankenstein’s heart? It was like that.
With all the ashtrays drying in the sink, he took down my Nana’s glass statue, a nest with two birds; one on each side. When my Nana had given it to me, she’d told me that we was those two birds, and no matter how far apart we’d be from each other, we’d always be together in the nest. He took it down, used one of the birds as a cigarette holder, and burned down at least half a pack of ash that smelled like burning tires into the one thing I cared about.
Once that switch flipped, I got my ass going. I pulled a frozen pizza out of the freezer, stuck it in the oven with the cardboard box still on, and turned the temperature up to BROIL, which must be hotter than 500 degrees, and turned on the burners to LITE. Pilots didn’t work without matches anymore. I grabbed one of Tyler’s cigarettes, lit it up, and stuck it in between his fingers, which were right above the couch cushion. The fucker was snoring the entire time. Can you beat that?
I stood outside, still covered in body glitter, down the street a little ways, you know, a safe distance. I waited, smoking one of my cigarettes, a Marlboro Lite, the smoker’s cigarette. I thought I heard Tyler wake up one last time. I thought I heard a muffled shout as he smelled the gas, saw the cherry from the cigarette in his hand, and he heard the ticking of the burners trying to catch. It could have been his shout, or it could’ve been the reaction of the gas that’d filled up the trailer meeting the cherry of his cowboy killer.
I didn’t think it’d be so spectacular. Or beautiful. Or that’d make me feel so damned good. Or that’d be on the news that night. I stood there as long as I could, watching it, feeling it, loving it. I thought it’d be small and mean nothing like everything else in my life.
Oh, but the fire went wild.
This path I trod
My knees are dirty lord
What must I do?
Sodom and Gomorrah flow from my eyes
I dare not look, but feel demise.
Where for art thou, too cliche?
How loud must I silently scream?
I need you to show me what u MEAN!
So confused, abused and incomprehensive
Just living to live
Can you not feel the brokenness?
It's to big !
Why can't I lie in the grave I dig?
What must I learn from the suffering you give?
I looked and saw the state of the world,
and I hung my head
it matched the feeling in my soul,
a distant fire burned red
Oh, but the fire went wild one day
not too long before now
and it burned and I was grabbed
by the devil's right hand
and for too long, I said not a word
though it meant my life
I hung my head again
worshiping my plight
consumed, as the poor and the beaten down
thinking a man in black would pull me out
and I searched and saw flames streak across the sky
they burned in my chest as I waited to die
but oh, that big river of life entered me
quenching those flames of rebellion
and I followed it, further on up the road
coming out on the other side, hurt
but it heals me, that one love
so I no longer cry in hopelessness
along that narrow highway
where at the end lies no grave.
Punching the Clock
"Will you tell the Man?"
I looked at the Papers
in his hand, his haggard
face, skeletal frown.
I said, "Not a word,"
though it meant my life;
out our path in the
We look down the road,
that unwind of
it was never flat,
like ripples in the
the rain sweated,
The road says:
"I wear the black
for the poor and
the beaten down,"
I grabbed his arm
and we ran;
In God We Trust!
while the factory
is roaring loud,
of a proud and
all grown up,
as pride of the Nation.
"What was made?"
behind that grand
passersby 'll query
of Iron Fist and
"Oh, but the fire
says my friend,
Stole our breath,
beat us down,
but not yet to
Not yet behind
Cash & Carry challenge @hunter_graham