Samuel Ligon is coming to Pittsburgh on Friday, October 7th! Ligon will be joining Robert Lopez, Ashley Cowger, Sherrie Flick, and the Haygood Paisleys for an evening of readings and music courtesy of Gist Street (co-sponsored by Autumn House Press). Seating is extremely limited and this event is reservation only — there will be no door sales, so we recommend ordering your tickets now!
Samuel Ligon is the author of two novels—Among the Dead and Dreaming and Safe in Heaven Dead—and two collections of stories, Wonderland, illustrated by Littsburgher Stephen Knezovich, and Drift and Swerve. His stories have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The New England Review, Post Road, Okey-Panky, Alaska Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, New Orleans Review, and elsewhere. His essays appear in the Inlander. He’s the editor of Willow Springs and the artistic director of the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. He teaches at Eastern Washington University in Spokane.
The below story is excerpted from Wonderland, “[a]fantastic collection of stories… incandescent, absurd, wickedly funny and, in the end, achingly true.” — Steve Almond
Sing a Song of Sixpence
The maid’s nose was snipped off by a blackbird while she was hanging clothes in the garden. I didn’t see it, having just walked away from the window upstairs, but there were plenty of witnesses, and while one claimed her nose was pecked off, and another claimed it was snapped off, and the maid herself, before bleeding to death, said it had definitely been snipped off, the essence of the thing remained the same. My beautiful Tammy was attacked by a blackbird while hanging laundry in the garden. This was after the pie was opened, after the king had turned to the bottle, and the queen to one of her young lovers. It was a pattern with them, part of the reason for all the laundry—the king soiling his robes and pantaloons, the queen binging and purging and fornicating all over the castle. They were horrible people, the king and queen. What do you expect? Treat people like gods and they’ll behave like swine. But I’m talking about Tammy here, my one true love, disfigured and wailing out in the garden.
Had the physician been able to stop her bleeding, I’d have gone on loving Tammy, with or without a nose. Without eyes, I’d have loved her. Without ears or a chin, ankles or elbows, propped on a straw bed for three and ninety years, I’d have worshipped Tammy. Had an eagle swooped down and pecked off her buttocks, severing her legs and causing them to fall from her body, I’d have braved fire, eaten rocks, tamed demons for the love of Tammy’s torso. Had she but lived.
The king was in the counting house, counting out his money. Do you see what I’m saying about these people? The king had a separate building for his plunder, brick and stone, while the rest of us lived in mud-daubed hovels. He kept a flask in his robes filled with rye, and I’d hear him grunting and muttering drunkenly in the counting house as he slobbered over his gold.
The queen was in the parlor, eating bread and honey. She could never get enough, and after she ate, she purged, and after she purged, she’d slather one of her boys with lard or butter, or wrap him in a string of sausages for more binging. Sometimes she’d nip at a finger or toe, but she hadn’t started eating her lovers yet. Not in earnest. The way she examined their haunches, though, poking and prodding, you knew it was only a matter of time. This is what I mean about these people, why somebody had to stop them.
It took two years to train the birds. Tammy thought we should use poison, but I wanted drama, the bold statement. “Jackdaws, then,” she said. “Or ravens. The ghosts of the murdered dead to peck out their eyes.” But it was blackbirds I wanted, the sweetness of their song. I did what I did for love, for Tammy. I did what I did for hatred, too. I did what I did as the one grand gesture of my life.
“Poetry must have something in it barbaric, vast, and wild,” Tammy would say to me, quoting Diderot, as we lay on our bed of dung, happy in spite of our loathing for our lords and ladies. I’d quote Diderot right back to her: “Hang the last king by the guts of the last priest,” and we’d make wild pagan love until morning. Say what you will about bile and simmering rage, but our hatred for our betters bound us as much as anything. I loved Tammy for the murder in her heart as much as for her club foot or cleft palate. We were the ones who should have been royal—or so much more than royal—not a baker and scullery maid, but gods, wrathful and glorious, emerging from the sun dripping fire.
When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing, one tentative whistle and then another and then a keening chorus as they came to life inside the vented crust. The flurry that followed was the most startling thing I’ve ever witnessed, all my dreams of murder come to life on explosive black wings. I thought of Diderot’s words, “Only great passions can elevate the soul to great things.” I thought of Tammy in the garden, waiting for night, our furious love and hatred, our plotting and scheming, training those birds, and now the magic of their rising on wafts of steam, a flurry of feather and birdsong and gasps from the royal fuck-faces as the birds prepared to peck through their eyes and into their worm-infested brains. The glory of it all.
But those fucking birds. They flew straight up and out the windows.
After all that shrieking and flapping, the air fairly crackled. How horribly wrong it had all gone. Instead of a new life for Tammy and me, I would be led to the block for beheading, or more likely, I’d be disemboweled, then beheaded, and finally quartered, while Tammy would go on without me, quoting Diderot to somebody else.
The king hit his flask. “Nicely done,” he said to me. “Jim, is it?”
I looked up from the floor. “Bob,” I said.
“Bravo, Bob,” the king said, toasting me with his flask before taking another long pull.
“Wasn’t that a dainty dish,” the queen said, reaching for the pie pan and stuffing her gob with fistfuls of birdshit and crumbling crust.
“Come on, Elizabeth,” the king said. “We’re not supposed to eat that.”
“Of course we’re supposed to eat it,” the queen said.
“I’m going to the counting house,” the king said, but the queen ignored him. I walked to the window and saw my Tammy in the garden below. The queen filled her pie hole. Maybe we’d find another way to set ourselves free. Outside, the blackbirds wheeled against a perfect blue sky. One pulled away from the others and circled on extended wings, drifting slowly, silently, down, down, down.
This excerpt reprinted here courtesy of the author.