October 21

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (b. 1772)

 

A strap of leather holds the large bird by its feet as it dangles from the apparition’s neck.  The bolt from a crossbow remains lodged in the bird’s breast, where it passed through its heart and out the back.

‘Twas a clean shot, but not one the Mariner felt proud of.

The albatross was a heavy burden.  On occasion it became lively again, flapping its wings and squawking with fresh awareness of its fatal injury.  At such times, the leather strap dug into the back of the Mariner’s ghostly neck; wings battered at his stomach like the fists of an angry child, and hot gore dribbled out the wound as the avian heart pumped anew.

For his crime against the albatross, the Ancient Mariner had been tasked to wander the Earth, seeking those who needed to hear his tale of cruelty:  a crossbow aimed at an innocent bird, fired on a whim, and bringing cosmic punishment to himself and his fellow mariners.  He hypnotized wedding guests and blacksmiths and schoolteachers with his tale, then wandered off to find the next listener, never knowing if his words had any effect on the people he encountered.

The world grew worse.  The gray-bearded Mariner, stooped over from his literal and symbolic burden, never seemed to grow older…but he became more spectral.  At some point, he hoped, his task would reach an end, and he’d be allowed to rest.

The Apocalypse should have brought that end.  His potential audience had dwindled, and now he rarely encountered people who might benefit from his strange tale.

Even if he found survivors, what might they learn?  Humankind had proven itself unworthy of his teachings.

Yet as he wandered along a country road, the Mariner’s heart began to beat rapidly at signs of life in the distance.  His heart, or the albatross animating again, its wings flapping against his chest.

He drew closer to the bulky older man, who leaned forward and pulled a wagon behind him — a container for his scavenged possessions.

The Mariner caught up with the stranger, then grabbed him by the arm to detain him.  “There was a ship,” he said, beginning his recitation.

“Unhand me, you gray-bearded lunatic.”  The old man struggled out of his grip, and resumed his slow pace forward.

So the Mariner tried the trick with his glittering eye, to freeze the gentleman in his tracks.  “The ship was cheered, the harbor cleared,” he recited.  “Merrily did we drop below the church, below the hill, below the — ”

The stranger waved an arm in the air to signal him to be quiet. “Oh save it, Ancient Mariner. We all have our albatross to bear.”  As the stranger turned slightly to reinforce his dismissal, the Mariner noted a dear foal strapped around his neck, the body riddled with buckshot.

He glanced into the stranger’s wagon, and saw it was piled full with animals, in various stages of decomposition.

The Ancient Hunter continued forward, pulling the wagon behind him.  He and the Ancient Mariner went their separate ways along that desolate country road…and Death and Life-in-Death laughed, and rolled their dice once more.