Kij Johnson

The Nun’s Priest’s Second Tale

This poem is a thank you to the people who were so generous over at indiegogo to me, the cat, and my Subaru.
You might check out the marvelous original to which this is a response.
I was a little obsessed with Macrobius when I was writing it.

Mine host requests a tale, my second now,
for I am sworn to speed this pilgrimage
and tell three more: an oath we nine and twenty
did share before our host, our Lord,
and all the air. Nor would I be foresworn
before so blithe and gay a company.
I do not wish to weary you with tales
of learnèd men and saints and hermits eke;
though you should long for them as hens for corn,
and find it rather good than dull to hear
of men of such virtue, and women, too:
of good Sir Bede who wrote our historie;
Saint Abelard and virtuous Heloise;
of martyred Ursula; and many more
that would improve all those that hear the tales
of their good deeds and woeful deaths. But no--
“A tale of cocks!” he says. “A feathering!
All are agreed; we want another tale
of Chanticleer and his dame Pertelote.”
Well, then: a cock all seek and all shall have,
for I am not the man to say you nay.
My doom is then, to tell such fowls’ tales
as shall amuse whomever hears; but though
I lade them deep with cunning and great wit,
some shall but hear the bourde and miss the nut,
the sauce remembered and the meat forgot.
Though, sooth to say, it pleases me to please.
I know somewhat of hens; to speak of them
is lighter work than tending to their needs.

’Twas soon enough that everyone forgot
this Chanticleer’s near death in Reynard’s jaws,
and that dread vision sent to make him 'ware
yet was ignored by him and Pertelote.
Had blind Dame Fortune’s hand upon her Wheel
determined otherwise, his tale was told
and saints and virgins be your fare instead;
but his great foolishness found in the fox
a greater still, and tipped the Wheel his way.
Then Summer came, and all had work to do.
The widow and her daughters labored well;
the kine and sheep and eke the swine did eat
and fatten each, as her meet duty lay;
and of them all had Chanticleer the rule.
His crowing split each hour from its kin
and day from night. His voice would trumpet forth,
as loud as those two horns of black and gold
that tell of each his fame or villainy,
before the eastward sky grew light, to waken all
and send them forth to do those proper deeds
as might yet sway Dame Fortune’s fickleness.

And so befell, beneath the Lion’s sign,
there was a night untouched by any air
however light, and hot as oven’s breath.
The Lady Pertelote and Chanticleer
her lord and husband slept their earnèd sleep
upon the narrow marriage perch they shared.
Close beside, each on her separate couch,
slept privily his wives, each one a sister
or fair niece to Pertelote. No simple thing
it is, to catalogue their loveliness.
Geoffrey might quail and doubt his skill to tell,
and if he fail, my lesser tongue must eke.
I shall but say, their Dress was bright with gold
and bordered ‘round with ebon lozenges,
and each barbet and quaintly folded fret
was colored bright as madder rose may dye.
Yet they were all but Moon and stars; the Sun
was Pertelote, her husband’s love and life.
The night’s first cloud of sleep was all pleasance,
as each did dream of what he loved the best.
For Pertelote and her fair fellow wives
’twas all of romance and of courtly love,
of courteous knights and patient faithfulness --
for Chanticleer, ’twas all of treading hens.

Alas, the waxing moon abandoned Night
mid-way, and left all wights to the tormenting
dreams that come most easily in dark.
Then Pertelote began to toss and groan;
she wept and made such noise as might have waked
her lord or any by. Yet, sleeping on,
he noticed not; nor when she thrashed about
in sweat of fear and sobbèd in her sleep;
nor even when she waked and cleared her throat
with such intent, ‘twould rouse Endymion.

Then from their perch did Pertelote fly down
into the nest of Blanche, her fellow wife.
As Pertelote the Sun, so Blanche the Moon,
so discreet and subtle with her wit
that Chanticleer ne wot no sum of it.
“Niece, awake!” rouned Pertelote. “For shame!
For I have had a dream that seemed so ill
that even my good wit gives no solàce;
and did I trust in prophecy, I fear
my heart should altogether stop. Indeed,
I grysèd with such dread as shook the perch.
and coverts fell from me like down in aôut.
I do not know how you could slumber on!”
Fair Blanche, when waked at last, said, “Dearest aunt,
How terrible for you! I grieve that hoggishly I slept
when you had need of kindly company;
and yet, I was so tired, trod, that I
ne could not keep eyes open, not for all
the gold of Ilium. Alas, such dreams are ill
to have, their cause bad humours, else high foods.
Peraventure worms would ease your sleep.”
Said Pertelote, "I knew the lore of herbs
before your egg was hard, and knew to scratch
for piliole and rue and other things.
This dream is not so lightly cast aside.”

Said Blanche, “Why not wake our dear Chanticleer?
Our loving Lord will ease our every grief
if we but heed his tender governance.”
But Pertelote did shake her bill and said,
“Abrayden Chanticleer about a dream?
If I confessed to him that any thing
or vision in the night did make me quake,
then never would I have an hour of peace
unto my death; he in ‘tender governance’
would speak to me benign and lordly words,
benignly lift his chest in lordly pride,
and make of life a wretchèd misery.
No, woman has but little avauntage
or power over men, beyond her wits
and feathering; she should not cede a straw.
Eke, you know men; I’d say one single word,
and he would tell some witless dream he had,
and mine be lost in his nice vanity.
And then besides, the dream was all of him.”

Said Blanche, “A burden may lighten when borne by two,
and for this cause do we seven wives share
in any dis-ease, and so speak on: what was the dream?”

Said Pertelote, “Ywis, ’tis ever thus
with Chanticleer, that he falls blithe asleep
and leaves us lorn, our ears awash in snores.
For some small tide I sought solàce in tales;
but at the last I found myself in dream.
I scratched in a fair sheltered place
enclosed by walls of woven twig and daub.
And there corn falls like manna morn and eve,
and small fine stones lay at my feet, their nature
such as any hen might wish for her physic.
And there a man, both short and round of form,
and who had much to say but naught of worth,
but him I heeded not, who left anon.
-- That Chanticleer was lord of all of this;
that then a Lion leapt into the garde
which in my dream was small and stripèd gray
and bore a mark between its ears, as though
the letter M had there y-written been;
which fell on Chanticleer with grim strong jaws.
With spur and nail they strove and made such fierce
battaille as Ilium had seen when Priam
Pyrrus fought and slew; that at the last
the Lion won and pinned down Chanticleer
between its paws, and made to slay him then:
who wept and with his shrieks twistèd the air.”

“Alas! Alack! And eke wellaway!
Was he agast?” asked Blanche. Said Pertelote,
“Certès! As much as any wight of wit
thus hente.” Said Blanche, “Yet you disdained his dread
when he it was who dreamt; and said he was
no man and gutless eke.” Said Pertelote,
“I did not mock him for the fear he felt
within his dream, for then his senses lied.
’Twas sooth to him; likewise the figure of
the fox, and there, it seemed, he might be slain.
Yet waking, all his senses told him plain
the dream was false, the fox a phantom too.
And yet he did not stent his shivering,
and so I called him coward. No man dies
because he dreams, and nor no cock, I deem.
Then Blanche did purse her beak and frown,
Dear aunt, you are as over me in wit
as age and other things, so let me ask:
All seems sooth in dreams, which shews we cannot
trust our eyes nor ears nor beaks, nor any
sense we have, so how are we to know
if even now we wake? For as I think
we cannot tell if this be dream or day.”
Dame Pertelote said, “Lest you seem a fool,
seek not to best your betters, not in wit
nor otherwise. Your rhetoric is false,
as Solon, Plato, Saint August, and every
other learnèd man would all adjudge,
and even Chanticleer; but I have not
the patience nor the time to better guide
your ill-formed arguments. Am I to tell
this dream or not? Then cease your jangle, niece.

“The Lion as I said held fast to Chanticleer,
Who then it seemed to me made piteous plea:
‘Wherefore this ruthlessness? Show mercy, pray.
I am the lord and governor to seven hens,
who would be widows all, and make such moan
if I were slew that Jove descending might
inquire. Do not causeless murder me,
when tender partridges and doves abound
as thick as fleas in every copse and hedge!’;
that said the Lion, ‘Every cause have I!
Your crowing wakes me ere the sky is light.
It is to me annoyance great, and so
I deem it is for all. As for your wives,
I do not think they will be widows long,
for I will do my part’; that Chanticleer
called on all rhetoric and boldly spoke:
‘It is my duty before God to crow,
and I serve well. My voice it is that calls
all to their daily work, and though the bells
may summon them to prayer, it is my crow
that tells them to prepare. To foully slay
who does God’s work is shrewèd wickedness’;
that then the Lion spoke: ‘Though you abound
in specious reasons, I see not one, why I
must starve.’ And with much gore and bloodiness
devourèd him to the nails, and then I woke.
Perhaps I should take physic after all.”

“He dies!” plained Blanche and dropped so many tears
as might collect to lift a second Ark.
“Alas,” she said, “the day that I was born!
Dear husband mine, to lose you thus is sorrow
great, though but in dream.” “You have no cause
to weep, dear niece,” said Pertelote. “For one,
you may die first, and would be mourned, no doubt.
And list: he snores, fair proof that he lives on.”
“Unless we only dream that he lives on!
And if Macrobius is right, and dreams
are omen-filled? Prithee, tell our lord;
perhaps foreknowing may avert the ill.”
Said Pertelote, “There is no wit to that.
If we are figures in a greater dream,
we cannot halt what happens. Nor can we do
if it be prophecy, which is foreknowing
that cannot be changed. And if it be
oraculum, then it might seem that he
may mend his doom, but he has not that power;
he cannot change the moment of the pounce,
and once the Lion has him in its paws,
it is the Lion that makes all the laws.
And if, as I think, humors shape all dreams,
to tell him would dismay him with no end.
So save your tears until they better suit.”
Said Blanche, “And yet the dream seems plain to me!
It says he shall devourèd by a Lion be,
though why so small and gray I ne wot not.”
“Are you Josephus? Scipio? Or saintèd
Augustine? Your thoughts like pigeons are;
in seeking one, you reach into their cage
and find you grasp another that is wrong.
For Aristotle says, that learned of Plato,
that himself of Socrates did learn,
a thing in dreams is not the thing it seems.
Eke, no lions are in England.” Said Blanche,
“Perhaps the Lion signifies this month,
for does not Leo rule the starrèd sky?
Then, the letter M upon its brow
means Maladie, and so a fever is.”
But Pertelote said, “Hush! No more of this,
for dawning nears and Chanticleer awakes.”

O Fate, uncaring fickle Dame! Avoy,
for to these foolish hens you foretold all,
and yet to Man you grant no plain foreseeing
and choose instead to 'maze him on your Wheel.
They did not heed the dream that you for kindness
sent, and therefore they did nothing change.
But peraventure it was for the best;
a chicken’s life is never aught but short.
’Tis well they do not see their doom too clear.
Men are more fortunate, for though in sooth
we do not know what is our final fate
in life, and whether it be good or ill,
yet we may hope to enter Heaven’s gates,
a gift no fowl however fair may claim;
and we are doubly blessed; for we may not
chopped head from trunk, or plucked and eaten, be.

The Lion was replaced by Virgin, Scales,
and Scorpion, each in their turn. The fields
were reaped and gleaned, Moll’s fleece grew thick,
the number of the swine increased by six
and then decreased to two, the cribs were filled.
Unrent and unaware went Chanticleer.
It was December, and the snow lay deep
about the widow’s yard, when these two wives
spoke privily again. Said Pertelote,
“How wise we were to hold our peace,
for nothing came of it; but Chanticleer
yet would have wept and groaned the season through
for nought. The dream was false, as I did think.
His only aventure was when Tibert,
the widow’s cat, did catch him sleeping; but
he pecked it til it yowled, then flew away.
You would have thought that we would dream of that,
if dreams in sooth bore omens. They do not:
a dream can do no more than wreck one’s rest.
A fool was he, Macrobius, and men
who heed him. Women are more sensible.”
Said Blanche, “Yet Alcyon and Dido dreamt
of great betrayals, cert, and found them right.”
“No gods gave them those dreams to break their hearts,”
said Pertelote; “nor was it Lord Aeneas
nor King Seys who left the ladies lorn.
That traitors’ task was left to other men,
to Virgil and to Ovid. They it was
who drove them to their deaths. But so it is,
that men of women’s weaknesses will sing.
A woman’s tale might bear a different sting.”

And here I dock this tale of gentle Blanche
and Pertelote, and may it please you all.
It had no greater end than to amuse,
but if you find in it some great morality
and tell us all, I will not say you lie.
Or, if you deem there were too many fools
or too few cocks, go thence and tell your own.
I make my oath to you that I shall laugh.
     As speaks Our Lord, so may we learn to hear;
make us good men, and fowl too; and wise;
and bring us to Your Presence and high bliss. Amen.

© 2015 Kij Johnson