The Swordsman from Calais
Two parting gifts the king gave to me.
First, my sentence– he spared me from the flames
to which a woman traitor must be condemned,
granted me the boon of manly beheading.
My gracious lord then changed the instrument:
not the English axe, which hacked away
the quaking shoulders as often as the neck,
but a noble French sword in an expert hand.
Yes, my husband king was merciful.
So kind was he, so great his love, that he sent
to Calais for the swordsman before my trial
had started, days before my sentence was read
to noblemen who would not meet my eyes.
A cold May morning; my breath curdled
like words I could not speak. A man in black,
his face hooded, waited upon the scaffold
beside the White Tower. A mad thought–
it is Henry in disguise, come
to deliver the blow himself, to make certain–
before I calmed myself, remembering
his figure had not been so lean in years.
So cold, that day. Oh, my only love.
I climbed the stairs and gave my little speech;
the people strained to hear. My ladies took
my ermine cloak, tucked my flying hair
beneath a cap. Someone tied a cloth
across my eyes. A pause, a breath of air.
Silently, the swordsman did his work.
And then went home. Crossing the English Channel,
he watched the waves, like fields of spring rye,
and hefted his weighty purse. Ashore in Calais,
he breathed deep the smells of salt and fish,
smoke from dockside markets where women sold
watery beer, bread, roasted oysters.
A seagull pecking a dead cat’s eyes
met the tip of his boot. At home, his wife
was sitting underneath the chestnut tree,
squeezing whey from a bowl of cheese in her lap
and watching the children play with a leather ball.
She smiled to see him, her brown cheeks flushing pink.
He kissed them each in turn, his daughter, his sons.
Inside the house, he put away his hood,
rubbed his spotless sword with flaxseed oil,
and nestled it within its wooden rack,
high and safe, out of children’s reach.
How tired he must have been, craving sleep;
yet turned from his bed, joined his family
beneath the sun-struck chestnut tree, beside
a trellis of climbing roses yet to bloom.
Juliana Gray is the author of the poetry collections Roleplay and Anne Boleyn’s Sleeve, which won the 2013 Winged City Chapbook Press poetry chapbook contest. Recent poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from PMS: poemmemoirstory, Tupelo Quarterly, Unsplendid, and elsewhere. An Alabama native, she lives in western New York and is an associate professor of English at Alfred University.
Margaret Bashaar’s poetry has been previously collected into two chapbooks, Letters from Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel (Blood Pudding Press) and Barefoot and Listening (Tilt Press), as well as in many literary journals and anthologies including Rhino, Caketrain, New South, Copper Nickel, and Time You Let Me In. She lives in Pittsburgh where she edits the chapbook press Hyacinth Girl Press and is a staff writer for Luna Luna Magazine. Her debut collection, Stationed at the Gateway, will be published by Sundress in 2015.