On the Wide River Road

by C.S.E. Cooney

For Kiri-Marie and Mir Mikelle

The river road hastens horizon to sun
Keeping unsleeping pace to the deep waters' run
A knight has her battles, her war to be won
A derring do mustn't continue undone
O mother, my mother, and can you not see?
This vigil, this questing has fallen to me

"O daughter, my daughter!
So dauntless and true
Valiant and foolish, a child are you
Why must you blaze where the brave rarely go?
A maid trekking out must be chary so
For the wide river road is a lonely old road
And a maid stepping out must be wary so"

The river road borders Polaris to Mars
From field to pasture, from planet to star
Down through the moos chewing cud in the glow
By a bend in the bridge where the blue thistles grow
Aye, mother, that road is a lonely old road
And a maid trekking out must be peerless so —
A maid stepping out must be fearless so

"Pray you be safe," says my mother to me
Tying my braids up with ribbons and beads
"Your pathway through peril, this last mystery
Not even the river may know where it leads
The fair path, the fey path, the crow path make three
All paths shape an arrow that points to the key

"Keep sharp-eyed for kelpies, for selkies and hounds
For bogeymen crawling one ear to the ground
For redcaps and ravens, for hobbles and weres
For scaggies and shaggies and folk of the air
For boggarts and goblins and gremlins and glocks
For stumps what are humpbacks or hungry clocks..."

I bid her adieu with a curtsey or two
With a kiss, with a smile, and singing the while
Slip free of her grip in a moment of guile
Impetuous, reckless, and feckless and free
I walk 'til I stop 'neath a grim canopy
Near the hedge at the edge of security
Where a dark watchtower is watching me

A whisper begins on a mischievous breeze
It rouses the waters and maddens the trees
the bramble-brook bristles with catcalls and whistles
A sobbing is throbbing from thickets of thistles
The nettle-nook settles and rattles and whines
A groan from the oak and a shriek from the pines
A quiver of aspens, a clatter of elms
A sigh from the silence of sideways realms:

"Thorn and bone
And reed and weed
A drowned thing screams in rage and need
Leaf and thief
And rain and pain
A drowned thing dreams and drowns again"

The river road rambles from midnight to dawn
Through darkness and dazzle it must carry on
And I, though a maiden, am made of the same
I'll not turn aside so soon in the game
O mother, my mother, light candles for me
That this questing ends not in my life for a key

A thunder wind blunders on cindery wings
Shadow rain snickers and faerie bells ring
A horn in the hills lures the Wild Hunt to play
Some witchery ruse sent to trick me astray;
What novel quarry, what savory game
What be the prey hound and Hunter must claim —
But the beads and the braids that my mother had made
To guide me unhurt through the Unseelie shade?

Before they could take me
My beads for a prize
My braids for their belts
My brains for their pies
Up swims a maid from the foam and the tides
Her hair streaming scarlet
Igniting the skies:

"Green leaf or silver
A true lover lies,"
Sings lily-white maiden
With peacock-blue eyes
"Green wave or silver
A false lover flies"
And down dives the maiden
With peacock-blue eyes

Whether she meant by me rightly or wrong
The Wild Hunt moves on, enticed by her song
In bitterest lightning and howling most dread
The hounds and the horses pass by overhead
Baying and neighing and bawling withal
Their laughter by far most repellent of all
And rear of the chase, on mountain cats mounted
Ride mad kings and queens of countries uncounted:

"Tally ho! Sally forth!
And so on and so!
Take the old river road where e'er it goes
And you, little human
So brave and so smee
We commend to your keeping
This ivory key!"

The river road scrambles through valley and vale
Through coral and cove, through shambles and shale
Through snowstorm and crowstorm and baleful bane
From Death's very doorway and back home again
As might a crusader, her sacred cup won
Creep homebound concealed, her voyaging done
I gaze toward a window where candlelight shone

"O daughter, my daughter!
So wasted and thin!
So ragged and hagged, so grey is your skin!
Did you not heed me? Did you not know?
A maid trekking out must be chary so
For the wide river road is a loathly old road
And a maid stepping out must be wary so"

Mother, my mother, now hearken to me
I carry the secret to unlatch the sea
To patch up the moon, to access all dreams
Secure me safe passage through Is and What Seems
Aye, mother, that road is a road to behold
And a maid who would race it must pace bright and bold
Through perilous powers and showers of gold
To return bearing tales that burn to be told
To return bearing tales that burn to be told

C.S.E. Cooney wrote "On the Wide River Road" some years ago, after meeting a man with a knife on a footpath by the Shannon River in Limerick, Ireland. Having survived this encounter (which was not as dire as the previous sentence implies), she went on to write more poems and stories, some of which are upcoming in Strange Horizons, Clockwork Phoenix 3 and Black Gate Magazine.

In the event of a poetic cage-match between Sappho and Shakespeare, Ms. Cooney would be in no position to judge the outcome, as she would have smeared herself in olive oil, clambered into the cage herself, and drawn the curtains closed. The ensuing athletic activities would be none of your business, thank you.

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