Skeleton Leaves

Cover and interior art by Chris Robert (

Skeleton Leaves: A Collection
By Helen Marshall
Kelp Queen Press, July 2011

“Helen Marshall’s sinister and elegant vision permeates this beautiful book, leaving the reader feeling like they have somehow been transported to Neverland and back, bringing with them the shades of lost boys and their spectral mothers, trailing words flying from between dark stars. Gorgeous and heartbreaking.”     --Sandra Kasturi, author of The Animal Bridegroom 
Helen Marshall takes a children's classic, strips away the flesh, and reveals the dark heart of Peter Pan beating beneath. At once about the violence of immature imaginings and the bitterness of banal adulthood where those imaginings are abandoned, Skeleton Leaves is magical in the true meaning of the word: dangerous and wild and hauntingly seductive. Disturbing as hell, yet extraordinarily compassionate, its ambition creeps up on you to quite dizzying effect. Reading these poems is an awfully big adventure indeed.      --Robert Shearman, author of Everyone's Just So So Special and Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical
“With Ondaatje-like resonance and attention to detail, Marshall explores the fatal attraction between a boy who never grows up and a pirate in love with his own death, the deforming ideals of motherhood and the sad similarities between adulthood and Alzheimer’s.”     --Gemma Files, author of The Hexslinger Series 


I’m very pleased to announce that Skeleton Leaves has been nominated for a Rhysling Award from the Science Fiction Poetry Association, jury-selected for the Preliminary Ballot of the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement from the Horror Writers Association and short-listed for an Aurora Award from the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.

“He was a lovely boy, clad in skeleton leaves and the juices that ooze out of trees but the most entrancing thing about him was that he had all his first teeth…”
So J. M. Barrie writes of his bewitching boy-child, Peter Pan.

It is a haunting image—the lovely boy, clad in skeleton leaves—haunting for its juxtaposition of eternal life and ever-present death, its treatment of the loveliness of the child’s form, the undeveloped rawness of youth, the baby teeth grinning in a tiny, impish mouth.

What is a skeleton leaf?

The image is haunting for its juxtaposition of eternal life and ever-present death, its treatment of the loveliness of the child’s form, the undeveloped rawness of youth, the baby teeth grinning in a tiny, impish mouth.

The Peter I first knew was an inextinguishable ball of light blazing across my childhood imagination: fighting pirates, rescuing Indian princesses, and acting every inch the schoolyard tyrant among his friends.  The Peter I see now—in almost Nabokovian obsessive detail—is the lonely sociopath who kidnaps children from their parents and kills the Lost Boys when they reach a certain age.

Like a good mother, I love both these children equally.

This collection is not quite a retelling of Barrie’s Peter Pan in the traditional sense. You may recognize bits of the original text, overlaid or interspersed throughout these poems.  You may also recognize other writers interspersed throughout. But perhaps you will also see something new.  I would call him my Peter, my Pan, but if Peter has taught us anything, it is that he is untamable by would-be mothers, lovers and authors alike.

Sample Poems from Skeleton Leaves

4. It is easy to be eight years old
when I look on the smooth foothills of his face.
His voices bristles like an unshaved chin:
tickling syllables,
whispers of gold hair
as long as harp strings.

Peter’s nose is a hooded falcon,
wings beating in a snort of laughter.

It is easy to be eight years old,
clothed in green under a hill
where the sky spirals and spirals.
Easy to forget.

“Come away, o human child. . . .”


Whoever has no house now will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone
Will sit, read, write long letters through the evening
And wander on the boulevards, up and down...

      —Autumn Day, Rainer Maria Rilke

24.  Spring has lost luster
beneath the egg-white gleam of her eye.
Milk-eyed, she dreams those branches
and the arching space of roots
like cradle bars
where she used to lay her head.
      Whoever has no house—
      It is gone now, he whispers—
      now will never have one
tossed high beyond the foothills
of stunted fingers.

Broken things are better
and he hates the clean perfect shape
of the nightgown.
Its lack of tongues alarms him.
      Whoever is alone—
      who will kiss your feet, Wendy, your knees?—
      will stay alone.
She is stitched so firmly
to the fabric of this new life.

Once you mixed blood with milk
and tasted acorns and earthworms,
all that quiet newness in your mouth:
the broken stone that cuts sharply, cleanly.
You, Wendy bird,
      will sit, read, write
      the strange cruelties we rejoiced in
      long letters through the evening.
Why does the latch rest firmly
where my shadow used to pass?

The dream still haunts her shuffled mornings:
the hollow space of the pram,
warm pillow and sweetly damp blankets
grown flat and shapeless as an ocean.
Her fingers curved to hooks that search
      and wander on the boulevards,
      twitching their telegraph loss
      up and down.
His breath balloons the window
but she shuts tight the curtain.

 (“25” published as “Mist and Shadows” in Star*Line 28.2. and reprinted in The 2006 Rhysling Anthology: The Best Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Poetry of 2005.)

25. There is no mist in the city,
no sparks that flicker beyond your gaze
like the eyes of the first woman you loved.
Electricity has replaced fireflies
as the primary source of light.
Who needs a trail of breadcrumbs
to navigate the London tube?
There are easier ways to travel
than in a house on chicken legs
at seven leagues a stride.

Your shadow has escaped you
and without a needle and thread,
it shall roam free.  It knows her,
the first woman you loved,
knows how to find her braid of hair
dangling from the tenth story window,
knows the name to call.

One night, perhaps, you shall turn a corner
to see them dancing:
his hand upon her hip.

He is sharper in her gaze,
and though you trace his steps
(the steps you learned together)
her smile is only for him.
You are but a shadow
cast upon the street.