Verse > Anthologies > Alfred Kreymborg, ed. > Others for 1919
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Alfred Kreymborg, ed.  Others for 1919.  1920.
 
Kysen, a Frieze
By Orrick Johns
 
I
THE GODS have taken a child from the womb of a dead lady.
The father has sacrificed five bullocks for the child in the womb during three days following the intense heat.
Twenty stores of grain have been turned out along the roads for the poor, and forty wells have been sunk between Wul and Tanaio.
The rains have fallen for a day upon the ashes of the mother, but the infant Kysen thrives upon the black breasts of a Nubian, whose first-born was thrown from the rock.
 
II
In the center of the circular pool before the house of Kysen’s father, facing the alley of poplars and the little valley beyond, stands a tiny girl-child of marble holding in her hands a wounded bird.
        5
Sometimes the sun robes it in a transparent gown of silver, reflected from the basin at its feet.
The sculptor Tamaporis modelled it from Kysen’s very self, and she, who is forbidden to do so because she is stately and silent in her father’s house, longs to take the child down from its pedestal and question it regarding their future.
But at night she goes out from the house in her tunic of shimmery white, with the fringe of peacock colored silk, and wading through the pool she climbs upon the rim of the basin and kisses the little limbs and the hands, for the sake of all the things she does not wish to remember.
 
III
Every morning for seven mornings, Kysen has risen from her chocolate, taken behind the lattice of her verandah, and binding her hair in a knot over her brow and donning her double chiton of pale blue embroidered with gold and modena phoenixes, has gone among the rosebushes to watch for the first bud.
It is understood that until the labors of the Spring have borne this fruit, her lover may not return.        10
This morning on the smallest bush three steps from the olive tree a spot of red no larger than a jewel pushed out of the green cloak, and Kysen has gone to the East window at the top of her house, spreading her arms in welcome. At night a rocket will be sent up from the terrace.
 
IV
When Kysen awakes in the night and sees the big wings of the big window open beside her bed she shudders, for she imagines they are the arms of a monster come to carry her away.
And when she hears the sound of the dry branches in the wind outside she imagines it is the voice of the monster calling her to come.
Then she turns to awaken her lover.
But if he is not there she throws back the purple rugs and the white covers of the bed and goes to the chamber where the paroquets hang, and lifting the black silk night-shade with the pink monogram, she chatters to them until she falls asleep in her chair.        15
 
V
When the red cat is ill it is as though the sea has escaped through a hole in one of the continents and the maid whose business it is to care for it stands before the shrine of Ptah, trying to pull her fingers out of their sockets.
All the doors of the house close more noisily than usual and the gold-fish die before they can be eaten.
But Kysen has prepared for this and in a far chamber of the house she has ordered a table to be laden with twenty kinds of fruit and the rarest wines from each province, delicate tongues from the baby calves, and the skins of quails roasted between honey.
When her friends are assembled the doors are locked and Kysen feasts and makes merry until the red cat is well.
 
VI
Once a year at dawn the priest comes from the temple to the house of Kysen.
        20
He is tall and his robe is of apple-green with a yellow band around the ankles and he has been chosen because he has the longest beard of all the young men.
He walks back and forth in front of the door, watching the casement of her sleeping apartment.
As soon as it is closed he enters and pressing his lips upon the clasps of her feet and upon her hair, he demands the name of her lover.
She pouts and refuses to answer, and though she would keep him longer pleading with her, he goes away.
Kysen watches the reflection of the window upon the round pouce-box of gold upon her table, and calling the score and five of maids she orders them to bar the doors and windows, to wear soiled linen and never to admit anyone again.        25
As for herself she has a bed of coarse sand made in her room and sleeps upon it until her skin stings with pain and is so rough that it must be embrocated for thirty-one days before her lover is allowed to return.
 
VII
On the tenth day after the birth of a child in her household Kysen prays for the things she can never have:
“Father of Smiles, Forgiver, I have read in a crimson doe-skin book with silver sprays and an orange enamel clasp, of a bird in Africa which the Tunisians call bu-habibi, meaning the bird of laughter and which eats grain from the tongue without being trained.
“In the palace of the Zuwya Sheik, who is said to be always on horseback shaded by a green umbrella, bearing a falcon on a tiny cushion and followed by a greyhound, there is a shawl of silk like sunset passing through the branches of the pine.
“Give me both of these, Father, and let thy daughter have many children, but let them be born from my kisses as sound is born from the wind and let them come into the world fully clothed in tunics of blue.”        30
 
VIII
Today there passed along the road ten men with iron collars about their necks and chains between them, and either side a file of young soldiers.
Kysen, without even waiting for the completion of her toilet and with her hair flowing behind her like a fan of bronze, ran out of the house and addressed the dark-skinned captain of the soldiers: “Give these men to me that I may free them! Are they barbarians or Lydians that you put iron weights upon their necks and fasten them together with chains?”
And the captain answered: “Kysen of the province of Wul, each of them has committed a murder by binding the hair of a maiden about her throat.”
And Kysen replied: “It is a thing that has happened since the beginning of the world, and men know that none but the gods can take life, for none but they can give it. The gods have brought death to the ten maidens by making these youths their instruments.”
Hearing Kysen speak thus the soldiers nodded to each other as though they had gained a new knowledge, and the men in chains drew themselves up and laughed.        35
But the captain ordered the column to go on, and because she could not prevail Kysen has placed a man upon the road to herald the approach of misery caused by the law.
She will hide her head beneath four thicknesses of ostrich down and fill her ears with scented gums in order not to know the sound of injustice.
 
IX
The little girl from the village whose parents gave her all the tasks to do in order that they might not lose a moment from their wine, has been brought into the house of Kysen to learn the art of laughter.
When the offenses of the child, whose name is called Dikai, have filled the red sheet kept by the secretaries, Kysen goes into the chamber of porphyry in which seven candles are kept burning day and night, and administers punishment to herself for the acts of Dikai, being careful that no member of the household should see the manner of her punishment.
When she has finished she gathers the tears which she has shed in a silver bowl, and pours them into the closed amphora upon which is written, “The Dowry of Dikai.” Then summoning the maids she ordered forty lashes to be administered to the lintels of the great south door, and instructs them to give the child greater freedom than before, and to obey her in all her desires.        40
 
X
At the dance of the Cow, which is sacred to the poor, Kysen wears the calyx of a poppy inverted, and her limbs are bound with cords woven of the tongues of serpents dried upon weights and treated with oil.
Her mask is made of ivory scraped thinner than the fibers of an orange, and two children carry the crystal alms-bowl, containing the figures of boys modelled in wax of Hymettus.
Her hair is powdered with the ashes of young men who have died for her love.
When she returns to her house, before laying the garments away she will press her lips upon all the soiled places for the sake of the gentle fingers of beggars.        45
 
 
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