Poetry Month

The Ballad of Death and the Maid

Tor.com is celebrating National Poetry Month by featuring science fiction and fantasy poetry from a variety of SFF authors. You’ll find classic works, hidden gems, and new commissions featured on the site throughout the month. Bookmark the Poetry Month index for easy reading.

This Sunday we feature “The Ballad of Death and the Maid” by Roz Kaveney, which originally appeared on the author’s Livejournal here.


“The Ballad of the Death and the Maid”

The black gig stopped outside the rich man’s door.
Pulled by two horses, both with feathered plumes.
He pulled the curtains, sat in darkened rooms.
This was a summons he’d choose to ignore.

He knew that rich men sometimes go to Hell.
He’d robbed poor widows; if he could defraud
orphans, he did. And if he met the Lord
he’d look for ways to cheat his God as well.

Someone knocked on the door; he called his maid,
told her to tell the caller he was out.
He whispered to her. He was wont to shout.
She giggled at the fact he was afraid.

She knew the tall man at the door was Death.
He’d called upon her Granny when she died,
had been genteel, so much so Gran had cried.
And waited patient through each halting breath

until the rattle, when he took her hand.
Then left as if he led her to the dance.
The rich man thought he’d risk it, take a chance.
Went to his desk and took a pinch of sand

he used to blot, and threw it in Death’s eyes.
Then grabbed her arms, the poor unknowing girl,
and spun her round three times. Her head a whirl,
he shoved her to Death’s arms, who in surprise

seized her, half-blind, not knowing whom he’d got.
She fainted in his arms, heard the door slam
behind her, and heard Death say softly ’Damn
I have the wrong one. Can’t imagine what

I’ll do with her.’ She said, ’take me away,
kind Death, sweet Death. I’ll clean your house instead.
Groped and unpaid, I’ve wished that I was dead
a hundred times. I’d lie in bed and pray

someone would take me from that bad man’s house.
I’ll hone your scythe, and wipe it free of rust.
Polish your floors and tables. I will dust
your ornaments. I’m quiet as a mouse

you’ll hardly know I’m there.’ Death stroked her brow.
Like Grandma did. ’My dear, it’s not your hour.
Much as I’d love to have you. I have power
but only when you die. Which is not now.

I came to take your master. It’s his time.’
’Are you in trouble if he doesn’t come?’
’No, truly, sweet girl. In the endless sum
of death and birth, though it would be a crime

to let a bad man live, he’s not worth much.
Still, it’s a shame. I’d like to take his life’
’Lord Death,’ she said, ’I’ll stab him with a knife,
beat out his brains’. She felt the gentle touch

of bony lips on hers. ’Give him a kiss
and I’ll take it from there.’ She had a key
to the coal cellar door, so quietly
she turned it in the lock, more like a hiss

of well-oiled gears than any louder sound.
She kicked her boots off, padded up the stair.
For black dust on the rugs she gave no care.
Master might mind – he would not be around.

He saw her and he squealed. ’Are you some ghost?’
’No sir, I’m back.’ ’How did you get away?’
’Death said your debts were not for me to pay.’
’Insolent girl, now fetch me tea and toast.

No, don’t. Come here.’ He fumbled at her arse
And pulled her face to his. His sweaty lips
forced hers. His eyes went dark as an eclipse
and with dark glee she watched his spirit pass.

She threw the curtains wide, let in some air,
watched Death’s coach drive away with him inside.
And stared down at his corpse in angry pride
spat in his face and left him lying there.

She took his rings off, made the oven hot,
melted them for the pay that she was owed.
And when she left, she had a heavy load,
her pack was laden with the things she’d got.

Rich men beware. Death waits outside your hall
And dying is the one thing you can’t pay
the poor to do for you. And if they say,
they will, they won’t. Because they hate you all.


“The Ballad of the Death and The Maid” copyright Roz Kaveney


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