The Glens Trail, Gorge Metro Park

a “gorge”ous preview of our Saturday hike

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Backyard Brief: Little White King

The other day, my husband spotted another striking, first-time visitor to our house, a male white-crowned sparrow. One day in rain, the next in sunshine, he stuck to the grass to forage for fallen seed.

According to my slightly outdated North American birds guide, we’re in His Majesty’s winter range. Perhaps he has been dethroned and is migrating northward to a new seat of power. I wonder if he is related to the White King in my Alice novel. Look closely: This fancy little monarch even wears white eyeliner on his lower lids.

He must be French, or maybe Quebecois.

Dolphin spotting with Captain Casper the sea dog! 

From Scotland with the Wee White Dug, a tale of adventures in the Highlands, including the Pump Room and Spa Exhibition in Strathpeffer, a view of Castle Leod (seat of Clan Mackenzie), the Touchstone Maze honoring Scotland’s historic sites, a Moray Firth cruise with Dolphin Spirit Inverness, enchanting music at Embrace Gifts shop along with wood carvings at Victorian Station, the Eagle Stone of The Pictish Trail, and more. Just further proof, as if we needed any, that your Scotland trip deserves quality time in Inverness-shire and at least a glimpse of the Northern Highlands.

Scotland with the Wee White Dug

Today I’m going to share with you an eclectic mix of Victorian spa town in the Scottish Highlands and a dolphin spotting adventure on the Moray Firth.

Last Saturday after an early breakfast at our B&B near Portmahomack, we set off along the NC500 route between Tain and Dingwall to make the 34 mile journey to Strathpeffer. Strathpeffer lies a few miles west of Dingwall.

The village sits in a wide mountain valley or strath. Leafy, and surrounded by mountains it has the look of an Alpine village to it.

Arriving in Strathpeffer is like stepping back in time. The Victorians have left an instantly recognisable imprint on the architecture of the village. You half expect to see elegantly dressed ladies, strolling down the street on the arm of top hatted gents with mutton-chop whiskers.

The Victorian Station

When we arrived at the station a cute little shop calledEmbrace…

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Backyard Brief: What’s New?

This spring I’ve added a new bird feeder to the party, and there are some new arrivals not before seen, plus others not seen in a while. Some migratory, some residential. Most of the birds that visit seem to prefer the finch seed mix to the black oil sunflower seed, but they are two different brands, so I suppose quality could be a factor. I’ll have to mix the two in both feeders to spread the sights and delights. Happy Earth Day.

New this year
  • song sparrow – Smaller than the house sparrow, with a narrower beak, buff and brown streaking with a black chest spot and eye line stripes, he makes beautiful music all day. The song sparrow perches in our weeping cherry tree beneath the bedroom window, in the tops of the trees (hazelnut?) lining the street sidewalk, in the evergreen of the neighbor’s yard behind us, and hops in the grass below our large backyard feeder. I think there may be more than one. He just seems to be everywhere these days, and it’s a welcome addition.
  • brown-headed cowbird – brief glimpses in the vicinity, seen and heard (loud, bright, high-pitched chip) 4/21/17 on our gazebo structure. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to the camera in time. Shy fella.
New this season
  • chipping sparrow – Two males! Also petite like the song sparrow, with a ruddy skull cap and grayish cheeks with an eye stripe, he can easily hide even in the freshly mowed grass. I might have seen females without realizing they weren’t female house finches or house sparrows. Those all tend to blur together. Although I did see a male chipping sparrow last June, the one I thought I saw in May 2016 turned out to be a female red-winged blackbird. These guys appeared 4/21/17.
  • red-winged blackbird – Usually a transient visitor, this time with female in tow; several males spotted, three at once on one occasion this week.
Other less regular visitors seen lately
  • downy woodpecker – Sometimes upside down as necessary, feeding on the suet. Female downy confirmed and pictured below. The other possibility was female hairy (longer beak, larger bird, no black bars on outer tail feathers). 3/31/17
  • common grackle – He keeps trying to alight on the squirrel-buster feeder without success. I haven’t captured his image yet, though. 4/21/17
  • European starling – Usually in flocks, they tend to prefer the suet as well.
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starling triptych

American goldfinches are in the process of molting for their brighter seasonal black and yellow. The rosy house finches and house sparrows are as ruthless competitors as ever, northern cardinals have come around now and then in mated pairs, and the docile mourning doves have made themselves at home in the bed below our pagoda dogwood. The American robins continue to dominate, as expected.

Camp NaNoWriMo: Song of Spring

For this month’s Camp NaNoWriMo, the first of two annual camps (also in July), I continue and hope to reinvigorate the process of writing my 2016 NaNo novel based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice books.

Currently, I have a detailed plot outline, my main characters are taking shape, and I’m zeroing in on the kind of story I want to tell. I’ve drafted almost the first half of the story, but many of those scenes and especially several pieces of exposition probably will require significant rewriting to match the second half’s focus and character arcs.

My Camp NaNo goal is to finish the first draft of the whole story by April 30–however disjointed, incoherent, or mediocre it might be. Forward momentum! The summary and excerpt below represent my latest clues to what the final draft may become.

To see hints of the slow, unsteady development of the project since last summer, see this seed, a snapshot on the cusp of its germination, and the small bud of a key scene‘s rough draft.


Happy writing and reading this month, which is also National Poetry Month. For ideas on how to celebrate poetry, visit my list of suggestions from last year. Poem in Your Pocket Day is April 27th this year. Whatever you’ve got going, I wish you the best. Enjoy!

Plus, nature lovers, don’t forget to watch The Zoo tonight at 10pm EDT on Animal Planet, and Wild Scotland starting tomorrow at 8pm EDT on NatGeoWild. My post from earlier this week about TV nature programs and Scotland nature tourism can be found here.


I’ll soon share some other projects seeking fertile soil.

Summary: Novel synopsis-in-progress (drafted 3/28/17, revised 4/1/17)

A fantasy tale based on Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll, Hunted Song of Looking-Glass Land re-imagines the second of his two Alice books. Glimpses of original chapters and the use of characters provide a frame of reference for new adventures and insights about the true nature of heroics and villainy in Looking-Glass Land. The teenage girl Song Warber, a Jabberwock, or Wock, wields her singular music-making powers in the struggle of freedom and justice for all Looking-Glass Landers.

A little girl named Alice mysteriously arrives in Looking-Glass Land and stirs up trouble for Song’s family even as both her presence and Song’s threaten the monarchy. Yet, it is only by allying with this alien little girl that Song can fulfill a destiny she only begins to fathom when her family falls into the hands of those determined to tear them apart—the Royals, or chess pieces, of Looking-Glass Land. Alice’s destiny is also at stake as she awakens to the gritty realities of this ailing country. Her triumph will depend on new alliances, betrayals, comings of age, secret support, a bit of magic, open battle, overcoming tragedies, facing fears, and confronting the White King, the Red Queen, and a vengeful Humpty Dumpty.

Can two young girls of vastly different species, upbringings, and worlds ever hope to right the wrongs of the place they inhabit, however briefly, together? The good of parallel worlds may depend on it. And what will become of Song and Alice in the process? It’s a reversal across the chessboard of team loyalties and the realm’s purpose as a land of vivid dreams, uncommon reality, and infinite possibility. Will Looking-Glass Land survive the turmoil?

Hunted Song novel excerpt (3/28/17, rev 4/1/17):

A story was told. Another was told after that. A minimum of three short stories or two longer ones would always be spoken in any given sitting where storytellers and story hearers gathered together.

Every story told was a try on the part of a contestant. It was a storytelling contest. Each contestant was a member of the Looking-Glass Land community, a long-standing member of the fellowship of the realm. No one was new. No one was young. No one was particularly old. The Royals were an exception. The White Royals looked wizened. The Red Royals, middle aged.

Storytelling had once been merely a pastime as popular as baking and walking in Looking-Glass Land. As popular as tea time. In fact, stories were often told over hearths and tea tables and tea sets. Tea things were the natural scenery for a storytelling session. Like other pastimes, preoccupations, and cultural rituals, the tradition of storytelling in Looking-Glass Land came with many rules. There were particular steps to be taken in the telling of a story. Specific qualities each story must have. A certain size an audience must have in number, to represent a story telling properly. Like tea time in England, storytelling in Looking-Glass Land had a certain order of operations to it.

As times grew harder, the wizened, middle-aged and neither youthful nor old inhabitants of the land grew more serious, less playful, less tolerant of creativity, invention, new ideas, new characters, or, eventually, any new stories. The only stories permitted were stories that had been told many times before. Known stories. Stories people had heard over and over again. Stories that became in their telling like the reciting of a pledge each morning in school or the swearing of an oath for public office. Familiar, unoriginal, the same–always the same. Even the wording had become regimented so that each well-known story could only be told in exactly one way with exactly the same words from start to finish, every time.

The contest continued, however. It became a competition in style of delivery. The stories never changed, so contestants needed only to memorize the content, and the rest could take on a variety of bellowing, shrill screeching, whispering, and outrageous inflections, dramatic pauses, vibrations and other sound effects, as well as musical accompaniment of every kind. Even a technique such as ventriloquism had been a trend at one time, but eventually, the crowds began to crave more elaborate movements on the part of the storytellers and from any actors they chose to act out the events of the tale.

You may think, So what? Stories are popular because they are told over and over again. When a story is repeatedly shared, it means it is popular. This can be true. However, the people of Looking-Glass Land took repetition to a whole other level. There were never to be any new stories of any kind for any purpose. Even recounting the events of one’s day to one’s family came to carry with it very strict rules and restrictions. Such recollections could only be so long and would not be permitted to be repeated outside the family circle within hearing range of other families or anywhere in public.

This was at first very difficult for people to comply with, as you might imagine. But over time, with practice, and a few minor adjustments to the rules, as with many things grown easier with habit, recitative storytelling in Looking-Glass Land came into its own. Upon visiting the land at such a time, you would note that it was as if no one had ever heard an original story, so much so that it mattered little who had originated the stories in the general repertoire. The creators had been forgotten, and no one mourned the loss of their memory. Memory instead became less and less important, and forgetfulness became au courant and du jour, as the French might say of more benign customs.

As a result, even short-term memory became devalued and less tenable among the people. This had reached a level of such ridiculousness that an outsider would find it absolutely comical how poorly the people held facts, events, even names in their memory, how few things they remembered while traveling from point A to point B, even just down the road from their houses. A side effect of this was that the Looking-Glass Landers were constantly getting lost in their own neighborhoods and villages, and needed help from a kindly neighbor they’d sought help from a thousand times before but whom at the moment they could not recognize. They could only hold so much information in those dry, unused brain muscles, you see.

The lack of need for invention, creativity, new ideas, or any kind of refreshing of activity had an even more devastating impact. It created scores of demented community members, folks with early onset Alzheimer’s, as it were, though they wouldn’t be able to spell that word let alone hold their own attention long enough to grasp its meaning. To try to remember the term? Forget it! And so they would.

This chronic, permanent forgetfulness applied to all things. There were occasional anomalies among the villagers in the thoughts they managed to commit to memory in their own clandestine ways, even while original storytelling became illegal, in both spoken and written form. Mainly, though, among most of the population, to forget was to comply, and to recite was patriotic. It was a way to pay homage to the stories the kingdom had declared the best, most worthy tales to be passed down from generation to generation in Looking-Glass Land. It could therefore hardly be noticed when the variation in delivery of these rote storytelling activities gradually lessened as well.

Like the flappers on the floating island world discovered by Gulliver, the people of Looking-Glass Land devised a means of support for their forgetfulness, to steer them aright and keep them from wandering forever aimlessly amidst their brooks, woods, and meadows. One of these devices was a system of concrete roads on which were painted in permanent pigments instructions to every destination known in the land to every other destination, as well as labels several points in advance of reaching a destination to remind the traveller that the arrival was imminent.

This worked even in cases where the person was in fact closer to their point of origin than they were to their designated destination. With abysmal short-term memory, the misguided could be guided best only by counter-factual signs and directions exaggerating the distance, the nearness, the direction, and the size of the places people sought to reach.

In fact, in our land, with our far superior short-term remembering skills (trust me, even you with poor short-term memory have nothing on these characters), we would interpret these overdone instructions as patently false, utter lies, and deep absurdities.

And who made such systems, you ask? Why, the government of course! They were naturally exempt from the restrictions they decreed. They became the parents, nurses, and shepherds of their people, and they could do very much as they liked, always, without challenge or correction or fear.

Such was the state of Looking-Glass Land in the years around the time Alice made her historic visit.

Actually, that would have been her second visit, if memory serves. Alice had been to Looking-Glass Land before, and the results of the first visit differed greatly from what that old fart Charles Dodgson professed them to be in his famous novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. It’s really quite funny. For a man who treasured his memories of childhood and later friendships with children so dearly, he proved to have significant memory problems of his own when it came to the fictional worlds he himself had created.

As an outsider myself, from the next country of Wonderland, I saw what went on in Looking-Glass Land with my own eyes. I possess certain . . . powers that made these observations easier. Because of my unique circumstances and close investigation, I can tell you how it really happened, and I will very shortly. I only hope your memory is not so short. I hope that you will be able to learn and benefit from this history–for everyone’s sake. Perhaps having this written form to re-read and refer to will aid you in that endeavor. I bid you good luck and urge you to make an effort, if you can.

Wildlife TV Programs This Week

One of my favorite ways to view wildlife is through TV programs on my favorite nature channel NatGeoWild (DirecTV 283). There is always something delightfully soothing, fascinating, mysterious, invigorating, or surprising to see–and always much to learn.

In the USA, two special options rendering reality in two very different styles will be broadcast this weekend. They are The Zoo on Animal Planet (channel 282) and Wild Scotland on NatGeoWild (channel 283).

The new episode of The Zoo (link to live streaming of season 1 episodes), a show I have yet to sample about adventures at the Bronx Zoo, is on next Saturday, April 1, at 10pm Eastern and features a desert fox, or fennec, named Charlie. I LOVE fennecs. The tall, pointy ears, the dark eyes, the foxiness, the elegance–truly entertaining canids.

Of course, I love Scotland, too, and until now have not seen a show advertised on NatGeoWild (channel 283) that focuses on Scotland’s natural treasures: Wild Scotland will air starting at 8pm Eastern next Sunday, April 2, in a series of 1-hour-long premiers, each focusing on a different season’s challenges and species in the Scottish wilds. Plus, it’s narrated by Ewan McGregor (at least the UK version is, which seems to focus on the Hebrides)–can’t wait!

Episodes for this series, part of a regular program known as Destination Wild in the U.S., start with “Spring Awakening” at 8pm (Eastern), about this unpredictable season’s effects on life in the Highlands. This new episode is followed by two others at 9pm and 10pm, “Mid Summer’s Night Dream,” and “Into the Woods” (I found no direct links for profiles on these episodes).

Earlier that day are additional, re-run episodes of Destination Wild, including Wild France. I added that to my DVR, also, just for good measure. Wild Alaska was one of the earliest in that line that I recall seeing years ago.

If you missed Big Cat Week on NatGeoWild this year, you missed some great shows set in North and South America including the Amazon jungle and Andes mountains. The majority of shows presented a diverse array of African savannahs, river deltas, deserts, and swamps. I DVR’d most of the shows and watched them later at my leisure. My preferences were the mountain lion, leopard, and cheetah episodes, as well as those involving, you guessed it, African wild dogs, aka African painted dogs.

Incidentally, although big cats are endangered in many places, the social life of lions leaves something to be desired with the males’ lack of protective instinct for younger sibling cubs and the infanticide of marauding adult male lions. Dogs, otters, and even bizarre hyenas are less dysfunctional. For a primer on how great African wild dogs are, see the footnote. *

Sometimes it’s a refreshing change of pace to watch individual animals tough it out–leopards, cheetahs, mountain lions, jaguars, even honey badgers. However, Shark Week (NatGeo) is a ways off, not till late summer, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show (previously on USA but this year on FS1) airs each year on Valentine’s Day, and Puppy Bowl on Animal Planet (channel 282) broadcasts as an alternative to the NFL Super Bowl (also early February for you non-sporting breeds). Those ships have sailed.

Generally, Animal Planet focuses more on adventure that may or may not involve animals, with programs such as North Woods Law, Pitbulls & Parolees, Tanked, and Treehouse Masters. I’m less of a fan overall of Animal Planet because I would rather see actual animals, not just people acting like them. There’s no substitute for the real thing.

These are not the only channels for observing wildlife on television, just the most obvious, most reliable, and most popular. Every once in a while, there is a special presentation, a Disney movie, films like March of the Penguins, and others on various channels from movie channels to science to family. Of course, now YouTube and other online venues offer even more opportunities to view animal and wilderness videos of all kinds. Our options continue to expand with streaming media and the mobility of videos being shared across social networks.

But if you’re more of a traditionalist as I tend to be, and you prefer good, old-fashioned TV for most of your visual home entertainment, check out this week’s offerings on NatGeoWild and Animal Planet throughout the week. I like The Incredible Dr. Pol, American Beaver, Otter Town, and anything to do with wild canids like foxes, wolves, jackals, coyotes, and dogs (including Dog Whisperer Cesar Milan shows). Tune in especially on Saturday for The Zoo at 10pm Eastern and for Wild Scotland starting at 8pm Eastern on Sunday. Enjoy!

Wild Scotland Reference

By the way, as I am in the process of presenting my multi-part series on Outlander-oriented tourism in Scotland–having visited the country last year but sadly seen little wildlife during that trip–I’m including below a few resources to learn more about exploring wild Scotland in person. 

For general tour guide sources about wild Scotland, I recommend:

Scotland the Best: Peter Irvine chooses his top 50 Scottish places to eat, stay and play – Daily Record – THE latest edition (book) of Scottish travel bible Scotland the best is out and here, author Peter Irvine selects his top 50 places to eat, stay and play.

Rough Guides – The Rough Guide to Scotland – The new, full-colour Rough Guide to Scotland is the definitive travel guide to this gem of a country. In-depth coverage of its burgeoning food scene, artistic innovations and awe-inspiring wild places

Walk Wild Scotland (walkwild.org) – Wilderness. Adventure. Culture. Relaxation.

Regional Guides and Guides by Type of Place or Activity

To begin to drill down into specifics, a helpful starting point for exploration is the Scottish Natural Heritage nature reserves and parks page. It provides different category links for types of sites and where to find them, including national, regional, and local nature reserves, national, regional, and country parks, national nature reserves and those managed by SNH, as well as other sites.

The following are some select resources I happened to come across while trip planning. This is in no way an exhaustive list; some vast territories are not covered.

In the South

WWT Caerlaverock – Wildfowl & Wetlands Centre near Caerlaverock Castle, managed by Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (wwt.org.uk)

Adjacent to WWT Caerlaverock is the Caerlaverock National Nature Reserve managed by Scottish Natural Heritage (snh.gov.uk) – “an internationally important coastal site on the North Solway Coast.” It is a birding hotspot (winter) and habitat for natterjack toads (summer) in the shallow pools on the northern edge of the reserve. “Winter attracts staggering numbers of wildfowl and waders. Oystercatcher, pintail and curlew feed on the mudflats and roost on the merse (local name for saltmarsh).”

St. Abb’s Head National Nature Reserve, Eyemouth, Scottish Borders (a National Trust Scotland site) – “A nature reserve and seabird colony on a dramatic cliff-top known for dolphin and puffin sightings.” – Google maps

Central Scotland & southern Highlands

In Fife, just north of Edinburgh, across the Firth of Forth: Welcome to Fife Coast & Countryside Trust and Local Nature Reserves.

Rannoch & Tummel (rannochandtummel.co.uk) – In the Big Trees Country of Perthshire: Loch Rannoch, Schiehallion munro, Dunalastair Estate, Blackwood of Rannoch (Scots Pine, remnants of the Great Forest of Caledonia), Kinloch Rannoch (village), Tummel Bridge and Loch Tummel, Rannoch Moor, Rannoch Station, churches, and more

Argyll & the Isles

Scottish Beaver Trials in Knapdale Forest – “Spot the signs of beaver activity in one of the most stunning parts of Scotland.” For information on the project, see the Scottish Natural Heritage page about it.

Argyll & the Isles (exploreargyll.co.uk) Wildlife and nature reserves page – a brief overview followed by three pages of specific results on wildlife and nature tourism in Argyll & the Isles, including Bute Forest, Islay Sea Adventures, Mull Eagle Watch, and Staffa National Nature Reserve.

Cairngorms National Park

Cairngorms National Park (visitcairngorms.com – official) – Activity search results for “Wildlife Watching” include well-established wildlife tours such as

UK Wildlife Safaris: Cairngorms Highland Wilderness–diverse, elaborate over 7 days, the tour offers sightings of red deer, wild goat, golden eagle, common seal, red squirrel, otter, pine marten, badger, and Capercaillie via treks to the Speyside Wildlife Hide, the Moray Firth, and through Caledonian pine forest–

and Rothiemurchus Safaris and Tours (Aviemore): osprey, badgers, red squirrels, red deer, pine martens. See Rothiemurchus.net for the full range of outdoor activities available, which include wildlife watching and photography, self-guided walks, pony treks, fishing, white water rafting, gorge swimming, hiking, kayaking, biking with bike hire, clay target shooting, quad bike treks, mountain climbing, archery, and special activities for kids.

For more Highland wildlife and bird watching safaris, go to VisitScotland.

Farther North and West

Scotland’s National Nature Reserves (nnr-scotland.org.uk) – Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve (lower northwest coast vicinity, Highland): On the hill you may see red deer, pine marten, mountain hares, foxes, voles and stoats.

Garbh Eilean Wildlife Hide (managed by Forestry Commission of Scotland) along Loch Sunart between Acharacle and Strontian, West Highland – otters, pine martens, a heronry, and, rarely, golden eagles and white-tailed eagles

Islands

Arguably the best place to see puffins is Handa Island. The Islands are generally best for waterfowl sightings year round.

Eilean Ban: The Brightwater Centre (eileanban.org), The Pier, Kyleakin, Isle of Skye island wildlife: “On the island you may see Voles, Pine Marten, Rock and Meadow Pipits, while in the water around, Shags and Cormorants are regularly seen feeding, and Eider Ducks have appeared in large numbers. Porpoises and both Harbour and Grey Seals are visitors, not to mention the resident Otters!

Don’t forget to learn about wildlife and nature in the Outer Hebrides, Orkney, and Shetland!

If you decide to hold off till the weekend, Wild Scotland is sure to be another great way to start exploring the Scottish wilderness. Watch it this Sunday, April 2, at 8pm Eastern on NatGeoWild.

The Zoo‘s latest episode called “Birds and the Bees” features the fennec fox, bee-eater birds, and a leopard; it airs Saturday, April 1, on Animal Planet at 10pm Eastern.


Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with any of these companies and make this recommendation from personal interest alone.

  • African wild dogs are the most efficient predators in Africa, with a percentage of hunts resulting in kills more than 90% of the time, and arguably the most humane. Rather than slowly suffocating or bleeding their prey, like big cats often do, African wild dogs immediately go for the belly, which induces the numbing effects of shock and results in a quick death. Again, dogs are better than cats–it’s just a fact. But they’re all endangered, and each ecosystem survives in a delicate balance. For a snapshot of other wild animals I enjoy, see Five-Phrase Friday (23): Cool Creatures.

Backyard Brief: The Yellow Eye

Backyard Brief from shots taken March 14, 2017

As much as I pulled the trigger, this lone winter goldfinch graced only my closest third look with true color–which I then enhanced.

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
by Emily Dickinson

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun - 
In Corners - till a Day
The Owner passed - identified - 
And carried Me away - 

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods - 
And now We hunt the Doe - 
And every time I speak for Him 
The Mountains straight reply - 

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And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow -
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through -

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And when at Night - Our good Day done -
I guard My Master's Head - 
'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow - to have shared -

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To foe of His - I'm deadly foe - 
None stir the second time - 
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye - 
Or an emphatic Thumb -

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Though I than He - may longer live
He longer must - than I - 
For I have but the power to kill,
Without - the power to die -

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