by Mary Barnard
At supper time an ondine’s narrow feet
made dark tracks on the hearth.
Like the heart of a yellow fruit was the fire’s heat,
but they rubbed together quite blue with the cold.
The sandy hem of her skirt dripped on the floor.
She sat there with a silvered cedar knot
for a low stool; and I sat opposite,
my lips and eyelids hot
in the heat of the fire. Piling on dry bark,
seeing that no steam went up from her dark dress,
I felt uneasiness
as though firm sand had shifted under my feet
in the wash of a wave.
I brought her soup from the stove and she would not eat,
but sat there crying her cold tears,
her blue lips quivering with cold and grief.
She blamed me for a thief,
saying that I had burned a piece of wood
the tide washed up. And I said, No,
the tide had washed it out again; and even so,
a piece of sodden wood was not so rare
as polished agate stones or ambergris.
She stood and wrung her hair
so that the water made a sudden splash
on the round rug by the door. I saw her go
across the little footbridge to the beach.
After, I threw the knot on the hot coals.
It fell apart and burned with a white flash,
a crackling roar in the chimney and dark smoke.
I beat it out with a poker
in the soft ash.
and all the phosphorescent swells that rise
come towards me with the threat of her dark eyes
with a cold firelight in them;
and crooked driftwood writhes
in dry sand when I pass.
Should she return and bring her sisters with her,
the withdrawing tide
would leave a long pool in my bed.
There would be nothing more of me this side
the melting foamline of the latest wave.
The images above: two paintings for "Undine" by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), and two drawings by Alan Lee. Barnard's poem, based on ondine/undine folklore, comes from the 1935 issue of Poetry magazine; all rights reserved by the Barnard estate.