by Jacob Cockcroft
Ink supplies had dwindled until society could no longer afford the
profligate spilling of centuries past, so authorities reluctantly
declared illegal all extraneous usage. High treason it was to spill
ink into words that did not administrate or advertise. Yet authors
continued to spill, and that’s where dutiful citizens like me make
an honest wage. I hunted poets, until I tracked the last one down
to a dusty town at the edge of the world where plants don’t
flower, waters dare not flow, and it ain’t worth the ink to draw it
on a map.

I found her supping at a lone cantina and slid into the seat across
from her. She startled. Nowadays lawful folks keep their
sentences short and their sentiments shorter, so I can spot a poet
simply by looking in their eyes. Hers were vibrant crucibles of rage
and desire, scalding with a fierce intelligence. She looked me over
until understanding swept like a shadow across that porcelain skin
cast over high cheekbones and a hardened jaw.

I withdrew a folded paper from my breast pocket and slid it with
two gloved fingers across sticky, warped planks. She opened it
delicately and scanned the lines, not because she didn’t know
them by heart but because, like an aged whiskey, the familiar
burn brings an intimate and pleasurable pain.

“I discovered this,” I said, “under some loose floorboards in your
room, alongside a litany of sonnets, odes, and free verse.” Then I
leaned back and ceremoniously produced the revolver I planted on
the table between us. When it struck the wood with a thud the
patrons turned their heads and began swiftly departing the
premises. A sudden flurry of movement from all the lowlifes save
the one I had actually come for. She remained as still as
sculpture. “If you want to avoid a public burning, consider going
for this alternative. It’s more expeditious.” She contemplated the
weapon, which despite meticulous cleaning still betrayed age and
heavy use, the cherry wood of the grip dulled, the blued steel

“How considerate of you,” she said at last. “Most in your position
wouldn’t offer such compassion.” Her tone was even and cool; I
could not tell if she was indulging in irony, something poets
enjoy. “Forgive me,” she continued, “but I anticipated someone
less knowledgeable of sonnets and odes. And your vocabulary is
so eloquent, considering your vocation. Expeditious. Litany. How
are you so well-versed?”

“A hunter knows the difference between a fox and a wolf, madam.
That doesn’t make him a wild creature also.”

“But I’m curious why you chose this particular one,” she said. She
still held the poem between her elegant fingers and occasionally
she glanced to it before calmly returning my stare. “Have you
heard it before? Do you know what it means?”

“It made no sense upon my reading,” I admitted.

“It’s called a nursery rhyme. I copied this down from memory.
Does it sound familiar?” I hesitated. She paused to cast her gaze
over the words again. “Does it remind you of someone? It always
reminds me of my son.” She glanced over to the wall beside us,
where memories appeared to play invisible over the cracked
adobe. “He was so small. How could a thing so fragile teach me
more than anything else, in the brief time I was blessed to hold
him?” We were both silent for a long time in the empty bar.
Starving crepuscular things whirred in the creeping dusk outside.

“It does remind me of someone,” I said finally. “The woman who
birthed me.”

“Your mother?”

“I was orphaned when she was caught. So I don’t think you can
call someone ‘mother’ who chooses words on a page over flesh
and blood.”

“You’re wrong. She didn’t choose poems over you, but because of
you.” She folded the paper carefully back along its proscribed
creases before offering it back to me. “I want you to keep this
one.” I flinched back from it.

“It has to burn with the rest.”


“I didn’t write the law, but I uphold it. Where would we be,

“In a world where you and I might read to each other,” she
answered. “I see the poetry inside you. I’m guessing a part of you
wants to find someone one day who can reach for that gun faster
than you.”

“Maybe that will be you.”

“Maybe,” she said, but her hand nearest the pistol held the folded
paper, and instead of dropping it she lunged with her fatally
further hand, so that she still clutched the poem as she died.   

When I returned to my room afterward, the innkeeper had taken
the liberty of drawing a bath for me. The stench of gunsmoke
would not abate and there was a ringing in my ears that dulled
the outer world. I stripped off the faded uniform, yanking off my
army boots and casting them clattering to the floor. I slid into the
wooden tub with a long, deep exhalation. After a time the water
had cooled. I glanced back to the door. There were no sounds
from the hallway without. I gingerly unfolded the poem. I read it
silently, mouthing the words. Then I spoke them, loud as I dared.

A sash billowed softly on a gentle breeze by the window cracked
ajar. My voice slipped out under the lifted pane and gyred
weightless in the abandoned night, a slight and primal dragonfly
fleeting free into black and fathomless skies. I saw a mother and
her child, snuggled close in a darkened room, where moonlit
motes of dust winked translucent and fairylike. The child’s face
was unabashed, his eyelids luminous and drooping, mouth open.
The rhymes she whispered as she caressed his tender hair guided
him gently into dreams: the tale of a man who was an egg, but
who shattered, and by no power of man or beast could he be
pieced back together.

Jacob Cockcroft is a speech-language pathologist who previously
worked in the independent bookselling industry for over 15 years.
He received a master’s degree in communication disorders from
the University of Arkansas for medical sciences, and avidly
pursues interests in etymology, historical linguistics, and
constructed languages. This is his first published work of fiction.
He can be reached at