Clay F. Johnson

Writer | Poet | Pianist | sometime Alpinist | hopeless Romanticist

The Ladies of Lancashire

The Ladies of Lancashire

Rooted atop a grassless hill exists
A leafless, barkless cemetery tree,
Its branches twist like curling witch-fingers
Painting long, creeping shadows, alive
With a flickering spectral-glow of black-
Opal’d witches’ dust—floating mists of ghost-light—
Capturing cold and lifeless flames within
The deepening darkness of impending midnight

As the shadows deepen, the tree-roots awaken,
Enchanting the hill with illusions of movement

The barkless yew—the witching tree—is flesh-like,
Charred as if cancered by the midnight-orbs—
Witch-burned by a sickly luminescence
Of moon-silver, pale with glowing decay,
Like phantom’s breath or frosted witch-crystal
That catches the moonlight on starless nights:
To the locals called the witching-tree lights,
In old ghost-lore called the Ladies of Lancashire

Hanged from the twisted branches of the witching tree
The Ladies dance with will-o’-the-wisp witchery

Every thirty-four years, when the Ladies
Absorb the midnight moon’s coldest silver
And give birth to the longest, darkest night,
Lancashire’s sleepy-eyed churchmen, the sons
Of her founding priests—known in whispered witch-
Lore as the cemetery tree witch-killers—
Awaken from their warm, peaceful slumbers
Only when the shadows flicker with ghost-candles

Under an enchantment of silver-orbed witch-light
The churchmen wake to wander witching-tree midnight

Stumbling upon the softened hill, grave-disturbed,
The shadow-slithering tree roots,—grave-serpents
Freckled with moon-wort of livid silver
And the black decay of witches’ butter,
Crawl and coil around the living churchmen,
Creep into their still-breathing mouths, stifling
All cries, and worm through jellies of living eyes,
Blinding the churchmen’s light, burying them alive

Metamorphosed by slithering grave-roots
The churchmen’s living flesh peels to reveal tree bark,
Their hair withers and turns to oaken leaves—
Deathless—immune to decay’s skeleton—
They remain immured and ever-rooted—witch-touched—
As the Ladies of Lancashire’s pagan green men

© 2019 Clay F. Johnson