During my tenure as BHP’s Guest Editor in March 2018, I was lucky enough to publish many gifted writers. One of these was Kate Dlugosz, whose mythic poetry stayed with me long after my editorship was over. Earlier this month I invited her back onto Burning House Press for a gothic Halloween special. She agreed. Take note, this interview is merely masquerading as an interview. What follows is a gorgeous helping of dark prose poetry for those of us who have October in our bones. Enjoy! —Amee Nassrene Broumand
In your poem “Springtime,” you write: “If nothing else, I know owls come from flowers.” Tell us some more origin stories. Where do bats come from?
Bats come from song, as the shape of music from the cords formed of autumn constellations played by the wind upon the harp of the waning crescent moon. It is from the stars and the moon that the bat took flight from the night sky, the space between the stars where they learned to see by shape. And released by moonlight, through the darkened canopies of wine-red treetops they fly as hordes of poppy seeds, scattering over the moon as grey clouds, and the world below them becomes strange and wild and unknown in the dark. The bats echolocate the moths and the beetles in the night, and in the blindness of their own vision seeing with clarity the worlds of ghosts and spirits that pass over our own. You feel the first chill of autumn is the hiss of the bat as it grazes your neck. At times the bats hang down from the banisters of old barns, the wooden planks slicing the moon to shreds like a white moth between their fangs. And sometimes they sleep hanging from the limbs of oak trees by their claws before taking flight into purple dusk in search of blood, the moths and monsters prowling under moonlight. Bats suck the red from apples and rosehips and would consume the sun if they could sink their teeth into flame. Should you stare into the vast night sky on a clear autumn night, you are stargazing through the blackness of their wings.
Where do wolves come from?
Wolves are born within the five-pointed star of halved apples, born of those black seeds whose bitter toxin grows into sweetness. Unborn, yet howling, suckling the dark ichor of tree sap, pawing from within the tree bark at the promise of sunlight. From high upon the boughs of apple trees, they pace in the blackness, smelling the scent of blossoms and dirt. The wolves ripen, the poison, dark and deadly, blossoming between their ribcage. For wherever the seed takes root, thus the wolf becomes. Should the seed sprout within the rotted mother-fruit in the orchard, the wolf comes out of the orchard twisting and untamed and free, curling into the soil of its den, sleeping in dormant blooms of chamomile and goldenrod. The earth beneath its feet the same as in its blood. The wolf hunts and loves by moonlight, safe in the silver glow with a howl that carries over the dark forests of elm and sugar maple to the elevations of mountain tops, roaming the valleys and glens covered in lichen, growing dark and wild. Should the seed sprout within the heart of girls, the wolf builds its den within the arteries and cavities, and paces the expanse of her bones, the rivers of her veins, hunting in the dark. Always with a jaw full of blood. The wolf snarls at the swallowed words each time the girl bites her tongue. She tastes blood in her mouth and licks the canines of her teeth, and the wolf is hunting. Its howl, lonesome and haunting and powerful, becomes her voice. This girl-wolf always hungers for moonlight.
Why do the leaves fall?
Leaves fall because they mourn the waning sunlight. Their grief is such a love that they drain the green of their bodies as blood the color of sunsets in reds and golds and browns. The water pulsing through the sapwood seizes, the pain drawn into the marrow of the tree. In the falling of leaves a photosynthesis of loss in a splendor of color. Daylight shortens, the palest of blues in the sky darken to the color of aster and coneflower, purple petals wilting into the horizon before the soil-black night tills the sky for seeds of starlight. The chlorophyll succumbs to the cold and exhales one last time as the chilled winds of autumn shake the leaves from the treetops. The reds and oranges, a gory death of cells, and every leaf becomes a haunt of summertime. The leaf breaks from the stem, a skeleton shedding the scarlet of its heart, and falls through the air to the earth with the fungi and rotten wood where at last the leaf decays as growth once again come spring. The falling leaves mark the first sacrifice of the dark half of the year.
It’s said that in the spring, thoughts turn to love. How does the mind follow the course of the year as summer turns to autumn & moves onwards towards winter?
Thoughts of love turn to spring as thoughts of love turn to autumn, but it is love of another monster. It is the kind of love of a heart scooped out from between the ribs like seeds and flesh carved out of a pumpkin with a knife. The way the seeds of your heart crack open in the teeth of your beloved, with every sharp edge slicing into their tongue. Thoughts of love taste like molasses and belladonna berries, dark and sweet and bloody, dripping down your throat. The burning of your insides from candleflame, the wax sealing away the memories of summertime, of the garden roses and peonies wilting and browning on their stems come autumntide. As empty as a hollow gourd and crabapples eaten through. Because these thoughts of love are as raw as pumpkin flesh, as bloody as bitten blackberries, bright and consuming and hungry in the night. The love that smiles with a twisted grin and drooping eyes, seeing by candlelight the rotten core of your insides.
It is a love where you bury your heart under soil and hay in the hope it might take root. A bitter love of an unripe persimmon, acid on the tongue, and heavy sweetness of honey sealed in its hexagon of honeycomb with golden wax. A heart aflame as a sugar maple, falling faster than autumn leaves, and all the gilded oak trees drop their acorns as a last hope. The last of autumn wildflowers still swaying in the meadows stricken with frost, covered with bone-white lace on every crimson leaf and petal that cracks and fractures in the light. Crystalline and cold, an icy veil, shimmering thread on the dormant grasses and evergreen. Each heart burrowing deeper into the dark, away from the sun, to await its thawing.
What’s special about Halloween?
It is special to feel a shimmer of dread down your spine walking along the edge of the woods. To smell the sweetness of decaying apples littering the orchards green, the sway of goldenrods and asters in the browning fields, the scythe against the barn door, the bails of hay, the rain soaking trees black, the honeybees retreating into their hives and sealing the entrance with wax.
Upon Halloween, or Samhain, as I know it to be, the dark half of the year descends upon the wings of an owl in the night. The sun of summer bleeds into treetops bleeding out the colors of daylight. Pumpkins and turnips are hollowed out from within, placed in windows with candles alight from the inside to guide the spirits of the dead along their way through the dark. A pomegranate broken open, ruby arils as drops of blood as sweet and tart on the tongue. Cemetery dirt beneath fingernails from the dead crawling out of their tombs and moths caught in spider webs, dissolving in their gauze. The dark grey fog and the ghosts that haunt the fields, the wailing banshees, the hiss of black cats and howl of wolves in moonlight. The sweet-scented bedstraw of barn owls and the screech of bats soaring beneath the full harvest moon. The tannins perfuming the air from decaying leaves, breaking from their stems and falling in heaps of gold to the earth. The silver mist hovering atop the meadows, the dying grains and barren trees revealing the skeletons of seasons passing.
To feel then in your bones the dead, the spirits, the otherworldly creatures wandering the hills and forests and streets, stomachs hollow and eyes ablaze of red. To be in the company of ghosts and memories, the wolves howling from the shadows of the trees, the gnarled branches of oak trees. Remember to light a candle for the dead passing through, to bake soul cakes and offer apples, to press the warmth of your hand to your cheek and be reminded how thin the veil sways as at Halloween we enter into darkness again.
A young woman in a fairy tale discovers she’s the daughter of a powerful witch. How does this knowledge change her?
The knowledge of her magic empowers her to reclaim her power. She travels into the darkness of her own core and emerges reawakened and transformed. Beneath the canopies of blackthorn, hawthorn, rowan, and elder she feels the pulsing of her own heart in her chest. She fills her shelves with grimoires and brews potions under the glow of the full moon. Presses labdanum and amber to her wrists and braids the white blooms of bloodroot into her hair. She sews black thread into the sleeves of her dress, embroiders sigils and spells into her linen. She learns not to fear salt or iron. The taste of elderberry and hemlock and rose petals fills her mouth as she weaves her spells into the night air and hears her voice in the stars. She learns to burst into a murder of crows, transform into a black cat or hare darting upon the hills, burrowing into hedgerows and hearth fire. She drapes her shoulders in a black mantle and wanders into the darkening woods, disappears into the grey fog and gnarled trees and hedgerows and faerie mounds. The thorns of honey locust and hawthorn she tucks into her cheeks that she never forgets the pain of blooming or the red of her cheeks. She dips wild crabapples into poison and tree sap, and crafts a wand out of ash and wolf bone. She carries acorns in her pocket and tends to her garden, grows mugwort and nettle and yarrow. She learns from wisdom and beauty of the earth and the stars, and remembers the magic within her all along.
What are the secret names of the jack o’lantern?
Yes, jack o’lanterns have secret names, but to hear them you must listen very closely. And you must earn its trust by venturing into the dark. Enter the peat bog after dark and watch for the flicker of lantern light over the ghostly mist. Be wary of the lost souls following the song of the jack o’lantern until you find it by the light of its flame. It is calling you, but you must make sure. Bring your head closer, closer to the jagged toothed mouth of the pumpkin, gaze into the candlelit eyes like little moons glowing in the dark. Feel the hot burning breath against your cheek, the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg and rotten apples against your throat. That smile, those crooked teeth you carved into its flesh. The candle flame of its tongue. It whispers into your ear—
How does it feel with your name between its teeth?
What, exactly, is a ghost?
A ghost is made up of memories of both love and fear. The threads of the veil between two worlds tangled into a knot, into a braid where the space between living and death are interwoven.
How do haunted houses change over the years?
Haunted houses change over the years as people do. And haunted houses are unchanging, as they always are haunted by memories, the liminality of a place both transient and stagnant in time and feeling. Listen for the ghosts of those floating down the halls, the footsteps pacing the parlor, the disembodied voices between the walls. The mirror of the vanity with the young woman dressed in her silk, pinning her hair with a lacquered comb. The blood behind the wallpaper as red as her rouge. The bones buried in the earthen floor of the basement rest next to all the childhood toys of youth and the mice burrow into teddy bear eyes. The white spectral orbs of light floating down the staircase, the centuries of photographs stored in the chest in the attic beside the dust and lace of a wedding veil. The doors that slam and lights that flicker. The resins and floral notes of perfume wafting from the bookcase where old diaries wait unread. Reach through the mist and pull the threads of ghosts by the hem until the spirits speak your name.
What’s that shrieking sound at the window?
The chill vicious wind of an October evening as the fog haunts the fields. A shriek against the glass, the oak tree scratching down the surface, the raven cawing from the branches. The approach of a banshee cloaked in her bloody dark robes, a keening upon the hills that calls the crows to her, a keening ancient and otherworldly and deadly. Safe behind the walls you seem, but the banshee and her spidery fingers creep and the woods darken ever deeper. She hears the blood in your ears and the knots of your stomach, and no iron will keep you from her screech that foretells your doom. The candleflame flickers, extinguished by the shadows, the silence of an owl hunting mice. The bats fly across the moon, the oak tree creaks and wails, and the night calls you out to the woods. And knee-deep in the purple grasses of the moor, the bones of earth reaching through the soil for your ankles and the crows watch from the crimson treetops, leaves falling in golden heaps. For she comes pale and draped in flowers and blood, and you cannot help but listen, enchanted by her shriek until a scream becomes a lullaby.
Does the earth hunger for our blood?
Blood is no different to the earth than a pomegranate split open, over-ripe and dripping red, or as crimson apples rotting on the ground, or the pounding of our hearts within our chests, vulnerable and intimate when alone in the wilderness. The earth reclaims—recovers each skeleton, embraces the decay, kisses clean the skin and organs and blood from the bones, enriches the soil with life at its very end. Each root, growing deeper and stronger into the earth, each leaf reddening on the cusp of autumn, pulses with the blood given back to the earth. It is a hunger of want, of desire, to connect once again.
What uncanny flowers or vegetables would you grow in a Halloween garden?
Plant moonflowers on the east side of the garden, so the dark green vines can climb up the trellis in spirals of heart-shaped leaves, opening bright white flowers as the harvest moon rises. Plant rosehips in the south, so they ripen red as autumn descends. In the west, plant devil’s skullcap, vervain, and lavender so peace can enter dreams, or at least the nightmares reveal prophecy. Forget not the rows of rosemary and thyme for healing and clarity even in the length of the darkest of nights. Along the stone paths the bleeding hearts will grow, drooping and heavy with their love and sorrow. With your hands in the dirt bury deep the roots of burdock and dandelion, so protection is never far from monsters that creep and hunt in the night. Black as the darkest rose and hollyhock and elderberry, the purple red of twilight bleeding. At last, plant belladonna, dark and haunting and toxic sweet. Then, once every plant is safe and planted, take a trowel and dig into the soil a deeper hole. In the heart of the garden, among the white veiny roots and chunks of broken quartz and earthworms, dig deeper until you are covered in dirt and buried deep in the embrace of the earth once more.
There’s a giant old elm in the graveyard. What does it think of the bones entwined in its roots?
The giant old elm tree savors the taste of the marrow, the rich burgundy red, the dark splintered core of a skeleton so ghastly white. The roots creep deeper into the soil, fertile and black, curving down the vertebrae one by one, weaving through the ribcage, and through the pelvic bone. They run down the arm bones and down to the hands, tracing each finger, as though to hold hands once again. From there the elm can feel through the bones the way the palms of the dead cradled soil, carried water, held the hands of others. The elm learns the stories of the dead and entwines so deeply the roots become the heart, pulsing and beating, so they live again.
Do trees feel pain?
Yes, trees feel pain. They store pain in their heartstrings, the rings of their heartwood endlessly cyclical and growing. Trees feel their pain in the network of their roots, which they share with the forest and the fungi and the soil. Darker the shadows deepen, so that the earthen floor grows blankets of dark green ivy and brambles with thorns and teeth. Trees feel pain in autumn as they sacrifice their leaves to survive the colder winter winds and snow. Each golden leaf broken from the stem becomes a mourning, the barren treetops keening in grief. But, as trees feel pain, they feel love as well, and love is stored in the heartstrings and the roots and the boughs as the pain, and both are entwined as one.
Why is sunlight sometimes horrifying?
Sunlight is horrifying because it illuminates that which we fear in blinding clarity. The monster in the shadow is only a monster because we cannot see it, but in the light we are forced to gaze upon the grotesque of our reflection in the black pupils of the monster.
What do owls dream about?
Owls will always dream of flowers. Of sunlight upon flowers, the sunny shade of goldenrod and yellow dock root, the bright starlit purple of asters, the autumnal maroons and oranges of mums. Owls dream of sucking the nectar from rosehips and hawthorn blooms. They dream of the softness of flower petals in the softness of their feathers, and they dream of the nightmare of their talons and all the mice they swallowed. They dream of their bodies nailed to barn doors to ward of evil spirits, dream of beds of sweet woodruff and oatstraw and broom. Even then, they dream of coughing up dandelion seeds and meadowsweet instead of claws and bones and teeth. The dreams of morning, bittersweet and rose-colored, that the sun rises with its golden wings when owls cannot. Dreams of nighttime, of moonflowers, are their peace, that still, despite the moon and the chill and the waning of the season in the treetops and the flowerbeds, there is beauty yet to be seen in the dark.
Some people keep their skeletons in the closet. However, my closet is full of books. Where should I keep my skeletons?
I have the same problem, so I keep my skeletons in the garden. Before the first frost, I stain my hands red digging out beets and carrots and pumpkins, and weed away the rotting tomatoes and eggplants, and the fallow garden awaits wintering. I mourn the wilting of dahlias and primrose and sunflowers, browning and decaying on their stem, and plant the bulbs of wild garlic and onion in the cold autumn soil. I unburden the skeleton and plant the bones like seeds, where daisies and bright blue crocus bloom from the eye sockets and snowdrops sprout from between the ribcage. Fungi attach themselves to the spaces between the shoulder blades and violets blossom from within the buried jawbone.
In this way, I garden with the dead and reap new life.
Why do we fear the darkness?
Because it transforms the familiarity of our world in daylight to something strange and unknown. Because it is the realm of dreams and imagination and fear. Because in the darkness we are unhinged in all our desires and insecurities and our hearts are laid open in the casket of our chest, a red seed to be planted in the dark of the soil to trust in its blooming.
Winter has come. What now?
Winter has come, and now we prepare to rest in the darkness. We stare into the mouth of the owl, the mouth of the owl, and face the fear of our hearts. We cover the roots in the cellar and gather wood for the hearth, tend to the flame at night listening to the howl of hungry beasts out in the snow. We put out blankets for the monsters that they may keep warm. We watch the silver in our breath and in the ice upon the trees. The sunlight still sparkles upon the snow, glows golden through the clouds with the hope, the memory of warmth. The flowers and plants and trees lie dormant in the fields and woodlands, and inward we travel, to our homes, to our hearths, to our hearts where we remain in darkness to see what light we bloom within. The forests are barren and hollow, the fields white and endless. What has died in winter dreams of spring.
Winter has come with the promise that in death there is rebirth.
Kate Dlugosz is a writer living in the forests of northeast Ohio, where she can be found conversing with owls and honeybees and wildflowers. She graduated from Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio, where she studied Creative Writing and History. Her work has appeared in literary journals such as Dear Damsels, Burning House Press, Wyrd and Wyse, and YesPoetry. Connect with her on twitter @flower_faced.
About the Interviewer: Amee Nassrene Broumand is an Iranian-American poet & photographer from the Pacific Northwest. Nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Sundog Lit, her writing has also appeared in A-Minor Magazine, Empty Mirror, Menacing Hedge, Occulum, Word Riot, Barren Magazine, & elsewhere. She occasionally blogs for Burning House Press. Find her on Twitter @AmeeBroumand.
Featured image: Tree seen from a bus window, Lake District, England, November 2014 by Amee Nassrene Broumand