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Birdsill’s Dreadful Poem

Birdsill

This verse narrative is from a novel that deals, in part, with the California Gold Rush. The character, Birdsill, is a frontier aesthete who fancies himself somewhat of a poet.

… from back in the saloon he could hear Birdsill reciting a dreadful poem.

BIRDSILL'S DREADFUL POEM

In the days of the rush when the fortunes were flush
For the few who’d been dealt the good hand.
When the dealer was Luck, and the cards were the muck,
The gravel, the water, the sand.
And the gold it was there, but who knew just where?
So you’d wager your immortal soul
For to stake out a site that would pan out just right,
Then you’d pay off the Devil his toll.
But The Devil’s own game ends in fire and flame,
So I thought it a wiser pursuit
If I staked out my claim with a scoundrel named Blane,
A malign and malodorous be brute.
He was rotten with sin and sodden with gin,
Half crazy and three-quarters blind,
And to parcel my grub with that sordid old scrub,
People thought that I'd clean lost my mind.
But although it was true that his virtues were few:
That his mind was benumbed and inert,
That he cared not for art nor affairs of the heart,
The old dog had a passion for dirt.
Like the grease on a cog or the scum on a bog,
Like the dust on the rain-parched plains,
Dirt clung to his skin and it worked its way in
Till it flowed with the blood in his veins.
And it gave him the way, as the prospectors say,
The way of a crafty old hound.
For one sniff with his nose would exactly disclose
Whatever lay under the ground.
It was flesh of his flesh, whether ancient or fresh,
If the diggings were new or were old.
With the mineral domain he was one and the same,
Yes, old Blane had a nose for the gold.
So we worked at our claim, till we wore ourselves lame,
While the gold piled up in a trove.
Though for all that we gained there was more that remained,
So like demons we pushed and we drove.
Until one day old Blane doubled over in pain
And he said, “This is it, lad, I'm through.
It's brimstone I smell, and I'm straight off for Hell,
Where I know that I’ll get what’s my due.
“ I have had me some fun, but for things that I done
I am bound now to sizzle and roast.
’Course I’ve known all along how it’s where I belong… ”
Then he grimaced and gave up the ghost.
Well, I dug a hole deep, where the night crawlers creep,
And I laid in his poor mortal coil.
So that there it might lie, like a pig in a sty,
All blissfully covered in soil.
And I whispered a prayer o’er the corpse lying there:
That no matter how loathsome he seemed,
He must surely repent of a life so misspent,
And his soul could be finally redeemed.
Then I gathered the gains of our months of hard pains,
A trove in an old burlap sack.
And I shouldered the load, and I took to the road,
And I swore that I'd never look back.
Then the future looked bright, until one fateful night,
As I lay in a half-dreaming doze,
Going on with myself how I'd spend all my wealth,
Something stirred, and at once my blood froze.
From the darkness all round came the sinister sound
Of footsteps that slowly encroached,
Then the scent of a breath tinged with soil and death,
And I knew that some horror approached.
Just then the pale moon cast a glow through the gloom
where it lit with its lifeless shine,
The face of a fiend that had never been cleaned!
With its eyes red as ... iodine.
And I knew it was Blane, though it must sound insane,
For he lay in the ground stiff and cold,
And I cringed from the ghost, as it drew itself close,
Then it said, “I’ve come for the gold.”
“B-but Blane!” I cried out, in a shivering shout,
“To the dead gold can have no avail!”
And he said, “That ain’t so. Ah, but would ">you know.”
Then he told me his terrible tale:
“On my trip down to Hell things all started out well,
Till a river come straight cross the road,
Where a ferryman’s there with live snakes in his hair
And a face like an old horny toad.
“First he give me a grin and he says, ‘Climb on in,
And a coin if you can for my fee.’
Then he gets a good whiff — the snakes all go stiff,
And he gags like he’d swallered a bee.
With a nautical blast he shouts out, ‘avast!’
Then while smacking his oar on my head,
He proceeds to profess I’m a foul stinking mess
And a living disgrace to the dead.
“Then he says, in his time he’s seen men black with grime
And smelled stench that would sicken a goat,
But for fee or for free, no one filthy as me
Has ever set foot in his boat.
Not for penny nor pence would he bear such offense,
And he laid the condition down cold:
Not to take me on board, not on any accord,
Not for less than a sack full of gold!
“And what else could I do, but to come here to you
For the gold that will pay me my way.
So go fetch out that sack, and I’ll make my way back,
Or I’ll haunt you till your dying day!”
Now think, if you will, of the nightmarish chill,
As you gaze at the living dead:
At a corpse with a smell too horrible for Hell
Standing there at the foot of your bed.
And though deathly afraid, a choice must be made:
If that treasure would be mine to hold,
Then the ghost of old Blane, and the smell would remain,
So hell, I gave him the gold.
Now the years have passed by, and I struggle and try,
But my fortune has never come right.
And I’ve lived evermore all alone and dirt-poor,
But at least I’ve slept soundly at night.
Though remembering the time when a treasure was mine,
It does seem so ironic and cruel,
How the whole lot was lost for the traveling cost
Of a hopelessly hell-bent old fool.
Then I think of the legions in Heaven's fair regions,
Though their chance of salvation was slim,
But with cash and contrition, bought out of Perdition,
While Blane went and bought his way in.

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