A clay body, or corp criadhach, is an ancient Scottish curse. Once placed in a stream, the clay would disintegrate and with it the body of the victim whom it mimicked. Only by finding and preserving the clay body could the sufferer forestall the spell.
Part of me loosens in a stream
where mountains tumble to the brook,
and the clear floodpath of a storm
encourages what’s left to break.
My body and the clay body
have each become the other’s muse,
rain-battered and anonymous.
Rheumatic, rhyming, our blood will dye
grey marsh-water. But the curse
pained me most when my family
patrolled its swollen mud-rivers.
My wife swam, breath-holding for a mile
with salmon and slim-finned trout.
She rose between dark-speckled parrs,
clothed in the river’s swill, and brought
three fish out. They were a fine prize
with angry markings on each head
but I was reminded by their dull
gaze, dashed by brick, that no clay doll
was tickled from the riverbed.
My daughter looked under the wheel
that drove the mill. Its rhythm
strung a harp with tendons and wool.
Workers there plucked a broken theme
but she walked the lake in winter,
dancing over an ice-skinned bruise
until she dropped through it to raise
a cursed doll from its delicate knit.
We waited three months for the thaw,
then she emerged: cold and caressed
by weeds and rushes. The miller saw
her waist-deep in a mirror, dressed
to her wrists in small reflections.
Three babies from a silted clan
huddled beneath the waterline.
Instead of names they had cautions
which they did not answer to. Tears
glistened on their cheeks like damp clay.
The miller came out of the trees
to help carry them across the bay,
along the cart road where they met
an upwind blowing out of tune
through birches. The full-bellied moon
made everything more animate,
swelling ghosts, reviving shadows
that puddled, adult-shaped, from small
wet feet. They glided through meadows,
nocturnal blooms, chaotic smells
cloying the world around their grace.
More than a family conjoined
by silhouette, their stumble gained
coherence as they ran on grass.
People stood in doorways in the town,
couples with children at their calves
brought lamps into the church. They shone
like candles in demure alcoves
dribbling red wax over white.
Emptiness blued the lead-lined glass.
Their brightness came from angles
carved as windows to another light,
flickering as I passed the wall
to where my daughter let the cold
take part of her. I pulled a shawl
around her shoulders and the child
she’d carried. When the crowd had gone,
we heard a nightingale sing out
over the beams and prayed our doubt
would let us have this as a sign
built from collective half-belief,
causality and long-drummed wars:
that those denied a chance to live
swim first among the rank of stars.
My son drowned in the salt marshes,
that’s all we know. A knife went through
the shape of him: its blood-rush drew
water from godless parishes
into his lungs while broken lips
blew at his side. I found a blade
washed up on the flats, dulled by scallops
and ropework. Brown traces of blood
painted its memory of his ribs.
One of the old trials was to swim
around the island, where birds swarm
until long-travelled blue robes
disturb their rest. They say he dived
among them for another lad
last year, was able to divide
water from itself, and would, if called
upon to prove it. That’s how drink
acquainted him with small-time men
who ran their errands when the moon
lit nothing and the sky was ink.
I taught him to follow the curves,
breathing between the sea and rain.
It’s the shape of the wave that moves,
collapses and appears again,
not the water itself. The trick
is passing through it like a thought
forgotten, moving without
end or origin. Every stroke
becomes a game, part of a dance
passed on and misremembered
through countless shifts of incidence,
renewing the shapes we’ve borrowed.
On warm nights, when the town is still,
we hear his crawl. Once, a wrecked fish
flew like a saint out of the wash,
showing my wife a barb-torn gill.
It was reclaimed into the black
beyond us, tide-tugged by moonlight,
and what remained was wrenched by lack
more permanent, deeper than night.
So every part of me belongs
to the river, and has always.
The world is a dream to the wise,
no more or less real than our songs.
Clay body, rivers, seas and lakes
vanish like bubbles in the gleam
of dawn before a sleeper wakes.
The dreamer, too, fades with the dream.