10:3: “Mark Twain Feels the Storm”, by J. C. Runolfson...

  He fancies himself the son of the comet
  but in this place, he understands
  how humble among the stars
  that birth would be.

He has learned to read
the stars, to measure
water, to count the seconds
between lightning and thunder.
He cannot think

(one thousand one)

for the humming, the incessant buzzing
of stars harnessed, of lightning caged.

He has been invited to witness
in his inimitable style. He will try,
though he feels the ashes
of inadequate language

(one thousand two)

curling on his tongue.

He tries instead to fix sensation in his head
and hands, in the hopes the stars will lend
clarity of speech,
their pure vocabulary

(one thousand three)

to craft perfect phrases.
It seems unlikely.

He is, after all, only the son
of a comet.

He touches everything he’s told is safe
to touch, entirely convinced
that safe is not the word. He feels an ache
in his famous hair, root to tip, and wonders
if the whiteness of it, of his customary suit,
unmake him in this space — the pale reflection,
the light negative, the flash

(one thousand four)

after the fact.

He doesn’t know.

In that moment, he understands
all he wants and cannot.
The lightning-bug caught in the storm

(one thousand–)


J. C. Runolfson’s work has appeared in Goblin Fruit, Mythic Delirium, Strange Horizons, and Stone Telling, among others. Her Rhysling-nominated poem “Lifestory” was previously published in Ideomancer. She currently lives on the west coast of Florida at the whim of the U. S. Navy.

Her interest in the early history of photography has led her to write several poems inspired by black and white portraits. This poem is based on the famous series of photographs featuring Mark Twain in the laboratory of Nikola Tesla.

8:1: “Lifestory”, by J.C. Runolfson...

So the god of love cozies up to me
at the bar
feeds me the sob story
how his wife broke faith
burned him with her
lack of trust
drove him away.

I know the tale
but I let him speak
talk himself into going back
defying his mother again
reclaiming the bride he tricked
letting her claim
what love should be.

I get up when he’s done
he never once looked at my face.

I step out into the night
the wind blows
snow and roses down the street
ahead of me walks a woman
in a mermaid dress

dripping blood and seawater
with every step.

I brush past her
hear her silence like a song
rising defiant between buildings
crying out her lover’s name
crying out her liquid courage
she knew when she saw him
what love should be.

I turn a corner while she walks on
never more than an echo to her heart.

There’s a limo driving slowly
its reflection a pumpkin
in the puddles
from this afternoon’s storm
the woman inside shines like a mirror
like cut glass
like tall white candles.

She looks out
with starry eyes
onto streets she’s used to seeing
grimier than this
but she cleans up pretty
she cleans up well
she’ll clean up thorough
what love should be.

I pause under a streetlamp
another shadow in her light.

Gold cascades down
the highrise beside me
green twines up from pavement
hair and beanstalk
a choice for the prince of fools
singing under his breath
as he struts his stuff.

He takes one in each hand
no way to climb
when they go to the same place
the same ending
not worth splitting himself in two
he’ll fall or he’ll learn
what love should be.

I watch him waver between bright choices
a distant darkness on the ground.

Far above a window opens
swans fly out
nightingales and doves
a nightful of feathers
and wild seductive cries
a girl in patchwork skins looks up
and flings wide her arms below.

She has fox-eyes and doe-ears
her hands are fine and white
and callused all at once
a horsehead speaks above her
geese scatter at her feet
three times her mother bled dry
what love should be.

I walk away from her mad purity
a skin she has yet to shed.

Thorns and wrought-iron mark a path
I take inward
to a garden overgrown
lilies and climbing roses
bluebells and forget-me-nots
golden apples strawberries
and pomegranates.

The ripe fruit is on the ground
in the ground
seeds like rubies glowing in the dark
spilled from the mouth of beauty
blessed or cursed to show
her nature with each word
that love should be.

The juice runs red under my feet
the fruit grows over and on.

At the heart of the garden
waits a toad
waits a frog
waits a bloated green beast
floating in the pond
the gold of ring and ball
glimmering in bulging eyes.

Beneath the water’s surface
gleam lovely faces
clasped hands
lost men and women
unchanged from when they fell
drowned or sleeping still
caught in the dream
that love should be.

I sit down at the water’s edge
the beast regards me expectantly.

Every promise and pledge between us
is paid in full
is forever due
We have both worn skin and ring
tasted water and fruit
’til we are ever green bound
wet and gorged.

It’s my time again for skin
and I lean toward him
the smell rich and rotten
sweet and heady
too much and too little
and too many things
that love should be.

I kiss him on the head
my breath full of tales.

The fairest bard rises up from me
in the dark
shakes out his finery
blows me a kiss
the most we have now
without breaking the spell
we took such care to weave.

He takes the ring and leaves me
diving for the ball
walks out of the garden past the fruit
the flowers
the thorns
he takes his turn to reflect
what love should be.

We know what love is well enough
we seek to taste the root.

J. C. Runolfson never grew out of a fascination with fairy tales. She has, in fact, grown further into it. Her work has previously appeared in Lone Star Stories, Reflection’s Edge, and Scheherezade’s Bequest on the Cabinet des Fees website. She currently lives in San Diego at the whim of the Navy.

The concept of this poem was storyteller become story become audience and back again, though not necessarily in that order.

7:4: “What You Never Knew About the Princess”, by J.C. Runolfson...

What you never knew about the princess
is that she likes to go down to the shore at midnight
kick off her shoes
dig her toes in the sand
as she dances with the selkies.

What you never knew about the princess
is that she likes singing with the wolves
as much as the nightingales
opening her throat and howling
the daughter of the man who won his crown on the battlefield.

What you never knew about the princess
is that she knows the genus and species
of every frog in the palace ponds
and the golden ball was very pretty
but a magnifying glass would be a better gift.

What you never knew about the princess
is that she bred those roses, bled on them
she doesn’t need you to protect her from thorns
to compare her to the fairest blooms
her heart beats in both.

What you never knew about the princess
is that she likes standing in the tower window
spreading her arms wide
scaring her ladies-in-waiting
learning to fly.

What you never knew about the princess
is she has a habit of getting lost in her own castle
exploring unused rooms for hours
emerging dusty and sweaty and beaming with discovery
old treasures and junk alike precious in her eyes.

What you never knew about the princess
is that she has sisters just as lovely, just as kind
just as clever as you never knew she was, is
a bowery of witty women trading rings and hair and needlework
for wings, tales, secrets freedom.

What you never knew about the princess
is that, while you hacked through thorns
climbed the tower stair
gazed on her fair face like something out of a dream
she was awake the whole time.

J. C. Runolfson lives in San Diego, where she looks for selkies in the waves and spots dryads in Balboa Park. Her work has appeared in Lone Star Stories, The Sword Review, Goblin Fruit, and Sybil’s Garage, among other publications.

This poem was inspired by the Elise Matthesen necklace of the same name, and by the author’s conviction that, in most fairy tales, princess is just another word for hero.