The House of Ill Waters, by R.B. Lemberg

Turn back
    from these precipices,
where the wind strikes its wind harp with jagged fingers of rock and bone.
Sure, you died, but that’s not the rare
    jewel you think it is. You don’t get
    to call me as if you own me, as if you know me,
        to ask for anything from me.

You seek the forgotten powers, but I myself
 erased your buzz-crawling world from my memory. I sought
     something more melodious:
     the last cry of a bird
in the crushing hand of the wind, its heart
  singing with all the languages of birds,
      before I swallowed it.
    I am the wind that ends winds, deity of the forgotten,
guardian of the domain I locked from you, so now you must
  go somewhere else. Go. Leave.

    No, I don’t care. When I cared
  I rode the serpent of the wind
whose tongue hissed between clouds; I asked
  your kin to aid me, I asked your kin
    at least to stop cutting: the trees, the earth, each other,
  the essence of time itself, stop tearing ragged
the wounds I rushed to stitch whole, but you people kept at it.

    I threw away my mending needle,
     my thread, my healer’s knife. I forged
    weapons, and from the devoured
      heart of the heartbird, I learned
    the language of all deaths, and out of every crevice
 called the ghost birds to me: my ancestry, my armor, the poetry
of all the smelted keys to my domain –
  shards striking obsidian, and the piped wail
    of marrowless bone.

    Yes, I did once
  open the door
that no longer exists
 to admit human poets. What
  have you done for me lately?

  I was young once, and softer.
Know this: aeons ago,
 beyond these mountains a great nothingness
   exhaled the translucence of the sky. Between clouds,
 the child winds frolicked, yet unabandoned
by parent storms: and your people

 sang the song of precipices, sang
 without despair or subterfuge; they made
 my mending thread from their marrow, not shying
away from deathwork, the gutwork, the bloodwork
with which poetry is inked –
    my door was wide open then.

    You think me evil, because
      I despaired of your kind?
     When will you do something? Instead of you
    and yours, my House of Ill Waters
 traverses the sky now, roiling its wrath:

 your melted snow, your desiccated seas
that rose as vapor and rebelled; my ghost birds
  interpret the language of ill waters
 hiss by hiss and syllable by storm’s syllable, so I can speak it too,
   spit your people out of the story.

     I am the wind that stills itself,
   the forester of all felled trees, the keeper
of the library of ghost birds, I am
the rememberer of your promises, all broken,
none mended. What will you do here if I admit you?

 But if you would
“do anything,” then drink
 every move of this mountain as if it was water,
breathe the wailed harmony of the wind,
 then dare to be sent back, to wake
  in your torn world again, to the pain, to the confusion,
the imperfect recovery, the fear, wake
  to everything your people wrought,
 wake to aloneness, to the weight and wreck
of generations. It’s not your fault, you cry, but your inheritance
 demands more than your indifference:

 these tree stumps, this suffocation, this lamentation
of the wind that was once sea, the perished birds, the grasses
 that poke stubbornly from the earth, still hoping for you –
and for their sake, you must
 become again, and choose
this pain, if you want to carry me.

So reach to that stilled syllabary, pull it out of you feather by feather, shriek
 that melody you would not touch, sing it better
 than ghost birds, scream that song because I am
  the protector of precipices, the one who would ride your dreams,
 the one who forever descends
  from the mountain,
  never reaching the ground below.

  I will promise you nothing until your heart
gapes wider than death’s gate, until you let
the House of Ill Waters into your veins, until the storm
 becomes your voice and swallows it, until you roar
   my mending thread back into your torn world, until
you do
 the work
  with no hope of returning here,
    with no recompense but this labor:
    ill waters, reborn and cresting to mend:

or – forget it. Leave.

Choose well.

R.B. Lemberg is a queer, bigender immigrant from Eastern Europe to the US. R.B.’s novella The Four Profound Weaves (Tachyon, 2020) is a finalist for the Nebula, Ignyte, and Locus awards. R.B.’s novel The Unbalancing is forthcoming from Tachyon in 2022, and their poetry memoir Everything Thaws will be published by Ben Yehuda Press, also in 2022. You can find R.B. on Twitter at @rb_lemberg, on Patreon at, and at their website

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