The King of Owls

It is said that playing cards were invented in 1392 to cure the French king, Charles VI, of madness. The suits in some of the first card packs consisted of Doves, Peacocks, Ravens, and Owls.

They say I am excitable! How could
I not scream? The Swiss monk’s tonsure
spun till it blurred yet his eyes were still.
I snapped my gaiter, hard, to stuff back

my mirth. Lords, he then began to speak.
Indus catarum, he said, presenting the game of cards
in which the state of the world is excellent described
and figured. He decked his mouth

as they do, a solemn stitch, and left cards
in my hands. I cast them down.
What need have I for amusement?
My brain’s a park. Yet your company

plucked them from the ground and began to play.
Lords, I wither. The monk spoke right,
the mealy wretch. The sorry patterns show
the deceiving constructions of your minds.

I have made the Deuce of Ravens my sword
falling through your pillows and rising,
the wing blades still running
with the jugular blood. Your bodies lurch

through the steps of an unpleasant dance.
No lutes play. I have silenced the lutes!
I keep watch in the clipped, convulsed garden.
I must have silence, to hear the messenger’s footfall

in my brain. For I am the King of Owls.
Where I float no shadow falls.
I have hungers, such terrible hungers, you cannot know.
Lords, I sharpen my talons on your bones.

Louise Erdrich, “The King of Owls” from Jacklight (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1984). Copyright © 1984 by Louise Erdrich. Reprinted with the permission of The Wylie Agency, Inc.
Source: Jacklight (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1984)
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