Poetry by Marjory Woodfield

After a painting by Vermeer:  Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid 

My father painted once. I remember

ships, children, fish, flowers on 

white tiles. His blue stained fingers. 

The kiln. Not so far from here. 

The morning he visited our home

I was chopping vegetables. Knife 

still in my hand. His black cloak, 

white shirt, fine lace collar, steady gaze.

I’d separated the vegetables. Leeks 

beside turnips. Onions between red 

cabbage and carrot. Because some colours

fight when side by side, I told him. 

This morning he’s upstairs. He paints 

the baker’s daughter. Her blue skirt. 

Ochre walls. Jug and basin. Yellow, brown 

and blue. Still, the colours do not fight.

Woman Writing a Letter, With her Maid, c 1670 Johannes Vermeer


Before the ferry leaves Bingen we 

follow the river to a museum where 

Hildegarde sings psalms and looks 

into a sky full of angels. We take  

a path beside her plants. Hyssop, sage, 

feverfew. Soft, the distant music. 

Over the water is Siegfried’s Mechanical 

Music Museum. Automaton monkeys wear 

carnival dress and hold violins. Hurdy-gurdy 

and carousels. The gift shop has a nightingale. 

Jewels and silver filigree. Such skill, he says. 

It sings one perfect waltz. Listen. The key turns. 


1. At the edge of the village, two young women pummel dough, place flat discs onto wooden batons. Mud-brick ovens are shaped like beehives. They wear long floral dresses, bright pink headscarves. Khalid says we must only take photos of the bread.

2. Salaam. She takes my hand. This way, see my new house. Inside is cool and dark. Mud floor and walls. Bright eyes in the corner. Straggle of goats.

3. Young boys follow us through the village with loud voices. Baksheesh, baksheesh.  Khalid turns around and shouts. When they reach the Nile they throw off clothes and jump into the river. Splash and laugh. Amélie is eight, fair-haired. She wears a red sundress and hat. Holds her mother’s hand.

4. At Karnak, there are forty-eight columns in the Great Hypostyle Hall. Everywhere hieroglyphics. Khalid explains. Here the pharaoh is making offerings to the gods. There, a procession. His wife is having their first child very soon. When he gets home he will tie some string through a ring, hold it over her stomach, see which way it moves. This way, a son. That way, a daughter.

5. Along the Avenue of Sphinxes, columns are bound like papyrus. Khalid says I’ll show you Jesus. Points to the apex of a column. There. Can you see?  St Joseph. Mary the Virgin Mother. The baby. 

Our dahabiyeh sails upstream. At breakfast, Khalid sits beside a plate of pink watermelon and soft Egyptian feta. He draws a map on his napkin, tells us about his farm. Lemon trees beside pomegranates. Pens for goats. Small irrigation channels. In the afternoon we sit on the top deck where the only sound is the whirr of a fan. We pass fields of maize. A scarecrow wears a jalabiyah. My husband asks if I remember ‘Death on the Nile’. We’ll have to watch it again when we get back. The next day we’re joined by a Belgian family, bringing our numbers up to nine. Still not enough for the cast of a good Christie thriller and still no Poirot, he says. 

Below deck,
they have spread a carpet 
in the galley. Khalid leads 
evening prayer. 

Sun lowers 
against Libyan desert hills. 
The fisherman in his boat
rests his nets. Stands,             

Sun lowers 
against Libyan desert hills. 
The fisherman in his boat
rests his nets. Stands,             


See the poppies. 

The earth is all mud. 

Trees all bones. Hear 

the shellfire. Song 

of skylarks. 

At Megiddo we walk. 

More battles 

than you could count. 

Thutmose III, Solomon, 


She picks a white squill. How well 

they’re doing this year. 

A bulbul sings.  



Cats sit on stone steps, rub against our legs under the table, skulk in hungry corners. We eat our mezze quickly, stand to leave but she rushes over, tells us there’s more to come, we must sit down. Over the road is the church we visited this morning. Saints Constantine and Helena. Helena came here looking for a remnant of the True Cross. At Paphos, there are floor mosaics. Theseus battles with the Minotaur. Scylla, in the House of Dionysus. She stops us, asks if we can remember all the Labours of Hercules. You look like someone who’d know. Nicosia has churches on one side of the green line, minarets on the other. In the Troodos Mountains, we take the other route. There are large boulders on the road and no cars. We turn back before the monastery. The one she told us about over breakfast. The Father with his wandering eyes who’d suggested she rest overnight. Break the journey. How tired you look. She fled down the hill. Returned to this small Maroni Village. Today red dragonflies hover above the pool and in the distance, olive trees. 

Poetry by Marjory Woodfield

In 2019 MarjoryWoodfield won the Dunedin Robert Burns Poetry Competition, was commended in the Hippocrates Poetry Award and Proverse Poetry Prize, long-listed for the  Cinnamon Literature Award and anthologised in Pale Fire (Frogmore Press), Best Small Fictions 2019, (Sonder Press) and with one eye on the cows (Bath Flash Fiction Volume Four).

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