12:1: “Songs at a Crossroads”, by Megan Arkenberg

12:1: “Songs at a Crossroads”, by Megan Arkenberg
  I.
  Traveler, your only choice is what to lose;
  This path will take your soul, this one your pride.
  The choice is yours. I will not help you choose.

That snowy northern path–who could refuse
its ice-trapped loveliness, though death’s implied
on such a road, and life is much to lose?

That southern trail in fiery autumn hues
would burn your mind to ash without a guide–
don’t ask me. I’m not here to help you choose.

And east, a dragon’s shadow makes a bruise
upon the yellow marshes where wyrms hide
their gold. Who can say what all you might lose

if you continue west beneath the yews
that whisper with the voice of one who died
while lost? I am not here to help you choose
your fate–although I wonder, sometimes, whose
face you picture, whose words help you decide
which limb, which year of life, which love to lose.
Or stay with me. I will not make you choose.

II.
South to the meadow, north to the field
or east to the sand rolling down to the sea?
O where, o where can this wound be healed?
O where is the home that waits for me?

North flies the gryphon, east rolls the foam,
and south roars the dragon to taunt the brave
but westward lies the road back home
and my lover in his shallow grave.

East brings glory, south gives treasure,
north spreads a feast with a noble host
but home is a prize beyond all measure
and west lies the man who loved me most.

III.
What is the price of your soul, O Traveler?
For what will you sign the Devil’s book?
Stand at the crossroads, name your bargain.
A dead man raised? A furtive look

into the future that dangles before you,
twisting like a golden thread?
Your father’s secrets? Your mother’s knowledge?
A word in the tomb with the unhallowed dead?

The names of all beasts? The speech of dragons?
The wisdom bound in the roots of the yew?
Come to the crossroads, you’ll find all the answers–
but I do not promise that they’ll be true.

VI.
Who is it sleeps in a crossroad grave?
     Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief.
Was he a coward? Was he brave?
     The gallows-tree grows but one leaf.

Was he handsome? Was he plain?
     Prince or hangman, king or sage.
Did he carry a sword or lean on a cane?
     The gallows-book has but one page.

Who is it sleeps in unhallowed ground?
     Demon, warlock, wizard, priest.
Who is the ghost at the crossways bound?
     The gallows-table serves but one feast.

Whom does the gallows-widow mourn?
     Scholar wise or soldier strong.
To whom is the gallows-orphan born?
     The gallows-bird sings but one song.

Whose company does your shadow keep?
     Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief.
Where will you find a dreamless sleep?
A crossroad grave to bury your grief.

V.
East or north, south or west,
it’s little I care what path I take
for gone is the man who loved me best
and my heart is so brittle I swear it will break.

Mountain or meadow, field or cave,
I want neither wood nor sea nor lake
for the man I loved is cold in the grave
and my heart is so brittle I swear it will break.

VI.
Call me devil, trickster, witch or thief,
Robber in the gallows-shadow, highwayman–
Or your salvation. What need drives you here to
Sign my skin-bound book, my darling?
State your price. So long I have waited,
Restless in the moonlight, for you to feel the sting
Of unfulfilled desire–that I might answer all your prayers.
All I desire is the light from your eyes. No, my
Darling, do not be ashamed–I knew this day would come.
Saints all fall in time. Eventually, all roads cross.


Megan Arkenberg is a student in Wisconsin, pursuing a degree in Strange Reading Habits and the Accumulation of Library Fines. Her work has appeared in Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and dozens of other places. She procrastinates by editing the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance and the historical fiction e-zine Lacuna. She says:

This poem sequence began as a companion to two of my pieces in Scherezade’s Bequest, “Song at a Cottage Door” and “Song Before a Quest.” But the crossroads presented too many possible images and stories for just one song, and as I tried to fit them in, I began to experiment with different forms and voices. The resulting bramble-patch took a lot of snipping and cutting and rearranging to shape it into the serviceable sequence you see before you!

Illustration is by Lothaire de Seebach (depicting la rue de l’hôpital à Strasbourg) and is in the public domain.



One Response to “12:1: “Songs at a Crossroads”, by Megan Arkenberg”

  1. Ah, this is great! It’s so difficult to find a poem that’s well-written AND scans to any sort of meter, much less rhyme. Very well done.

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