Long Shadow

By Rose Lemberg

The Journeymaker visits the Marsh Oracle

uncurl your tongue’s fiddlehead
let me hear the tale of Long Shadow
in your voice
              that ripened underground
 
Stitch for me clouds of white linen and storm-black damask:
                 embroider them with lightning,
give me the tokens of brass in your hair:
            elk and hare and chickadee,
                                      their eyes of tourmaline to smooth my tongue
 
This brass that weighs my hair
                  down to this waterlogged earth
                      was woven in there by my lover,
the one who tarries long,
     the one I fear has lost his way.
             If I’m to give you of those tokens,
               and he’s to come,
then promise me that you will send him in my steps.
 
I make no bargains with immortals;
my tale will die—
      perhaps to be be reborn
                inside those swollen waterlilies,
                    inside the marsh, unreachable by winds.
 
These clouds I’ve sewn with lightning,
      these cloths of snow with hare-stitched paths,
            unwound the tokens from my hair.
 
Then sit with me,
land-stitcher, Journeymaker—stay from motion
on gurgling ground that named itself
with water grown too green with life
before your wars were born:

on this disloyal ground,
attend.

The Marsh Oracle Tells about the Child

      Across the winter grows the shadow long,
across these bitter fields, where hare and deer
leap over bones grown through with dandelion
and strangleweed—
                          there, buried underground
              the wars of past and future intertwine
	in caves like marriage beds, in sheets dug out by moles they lie
      in ditches sunk through earth, 
in graves, 
         and birth Long Shadow

the child with hair of ash and abalone
and skin of bark, and sunken cheeks of rue,
born of so many parents, and of none.
The child whose voice is rotten hair,
whose hair is screech-owl wings, 
whose eyes ensnare your wildest fear
                        and skin it—
yes, Long Shadow.

What is displaced from memory, pushed out,
         made vanish, buried, does not always die. 
             I’ve made a note of this to mortals:
      that wars once fought will still reverberate
    through frozen earth, through thaw, through many lives
 warped by those deeds  
        —do you suggest that those who dwell above 
                    should aid the child, an orphan of too many parents,
                       of battlefields like tangled snakes?

You’ve made me laugh with your inane pontificating.
Give me a lantern for my hurts!
Would you agree to aid a child who wanders like a ghost
and steals the souls of the unborn? How will you go
about this help? To keep it warm,
whose children will you choose, and spill their blood
to feed Long Shadow?

         There must be another way.

What way do you envision
while battles suffocate below,
yet are still living? All those hatreds that have grown
like poison ivy through the hearts of city dwellers
and village folk—where do you think they come from?

The child, the child, it is a strangleweed,
the child’s a thief, the child’s a piper 
who walks through towns and sings the young away 
to join its parents under loam and hedge
to die and rot and still remain alive
where voices call from stolen earth.

         What’s the solution? I must know—

Is that the knowledge you would gain from me,
a warmth by which it would be pacified,
a comfort that would make the land forget
your lover’s bloody deeds?

         All that was done against my will.

These tokens I have felt
                with mold-wet fingers
         elk and chickadee—you say he braids your hair
with much humility, and is housebroken;
Your lover’s bloody deeds have birthed the wars.

You’ll gain no better answers from the marsh,
for here unwanted truths have come to rot,
disdained by people who would rather hope,
and hope in vain, than swallow truth.

         I swallowed from your truth.
         My leave I’ll take—
         and those brass ornaments, to melt away,
         be vapor in the sun. I owe you nothing
         except my hearing of your truth.

So shall it be.

The Journeymaker walks out

Rotten marsh, swollen marsh,
widow marsh, willow marsh,
long-forgotten, ill-begotten,
whose truths are bloated toads,
whose lies are shadow roads:

I ask the rain to clear my path,
I ask the wind to show my path,
breath by breath to lead me out,
star by star to burn the doubt,

a blade of fire to cleanse and smooth,
a blade of night to shape and soothe,
a blade of blue to make a song,
a blade of song to heal this wrong,

a lantern swaying over pools of water frozen with my breath,
a stitching of fine spidersilk,
these mountains, drawing pain away from field and meadow,

a blade of brass to bring my lover.

The Journeymaker finds shelter with Biruté

Come in, come out of the rain, Sister,
I ask the water-curtains to part,
move the limbs of the willows,
let all the wet green welcome you 
     into my house of bleached logs and of wise moss.

You, riverwoman, brown muck woman,
guarded by otter and heron and white frog
       in your house that sings the river—
                will you ask of me for ornaments or weavings,
        embroideries of starbound silver, 
       strands of my hair or other protections?
  
  I am weary.
  My feet blunder with this weariness,
  my hands are weighed down with the unbraiding of hair,
  my heart with the unbraiding of trust.

I ask for nothing, Sister, Journeymaker,
for aren’t you the one who brews shark-fin and bladegrass,
nurtures the wounded, be they birds or mortals,
in your high cave in the crags?

I do not like to speak of it.

You, who contains 
          the echo in its conch,
       the Sword of War in its scabbard,
    the tales of your kindness in refusal of speech; 
    you, who walks from city to city 
clothed in obsidian and sunfire well-concealed in wraps:
               you,
               who quilts lands,
                who leads girls and women away from hurt,
                  who speaks with sisterbrothers, guides riverchildren to safe roads:

Sister, Journeymaker, you are forever welcome here,
  where the river overflows
     with meltwater, with spring green, with brown muck,   
     with the bubbling sweetness of summer,
       and firebright blessings of fallen leaves,
         where, in the arms of frost,
                it flows to a stillness—

     The river flows 
from the heart of the marsh, through the forest, through all worlds.
 You are forever welcome here.

I will enter then, Biruté,
to sit on these fallen-log benches,
take repast from your hands—grain and wild garlic,
fish soup and honeyed tea. I will allow
your helpers to touch me—
the beaver at my feet,
the otter at my elbow,
the white frog in my palm.

          You are troubled.

It is so.

          Would you speak of your trouble
              into the breathing sap of the logs,
               into water’s abundance,
                  to me?

You, mud-woman with eyes of amber,
dressed in green vines and shod in warbling clay:
I’ll speak as you ask, Biruté,
spit my failures, 
spill my pain.

I sang to leave the marsh, yet I am here,
I sang to bring my lover, but he tarries;

and this I heard—to Long Shadow’s
thieving there can be no end.

The heart of the marsh is everchanging,
shifting, growing with heron-song and meltwater,
with the turtle’s turning and the swelling of the leech.
Yet nothing changes: these logs
    that grew and fell once, and were polished to a smoothness
by the hands of the river: they have been here forever
neverliving, neversmoothed: forever—
and so this house, and so have I.

  I’ll give you a truth
     that leaps fishlike and is plucked
            with the patience of herons:
     Long Shadow comes here. 

The child sits where you sit,
sips the fish stew from the same clay dish, and the children
  that Long Shadow stole—they shine
              starlike
      from the folds of the garments.
I’d wish to say
         that I wouldn’t let harm come to this child,
           but I have let it go,
      like you have released your lover:

To return, or yet not to return,
to make choices, to bleed, to hunger—

        To carry the marsh inside,
           the foreverness of it,
              to raise one’s hands with river’s undulation—

to call oneself home, if one so wishes—

      to call oneself home, if one so wishes,
        to call oneself to speak to you.

I will bide then, if you will.

    Yes—I would bid you to bide,
       where the river flows
           in the green of the sprouting of my heart,
              in the fish-wells of my veins,
          in the shadows of the folds of my shadows.

Enter Long Shadow

eyes like drowned pondssit down and take nourishment, child a garment of molddream and ash blended into tea sheltering all those others—and for your companions will it speak to me—is it capable of speech?moonbeam candy does rot and diamondshine speak?sweet birch syrup I’d knowmarbles of petrified dew to play with
of your pain, Long Shadow, and how to assuage it. /// turn me into a forgetting [of your offerings we would take] swish away pain [ash poultice and burnt root of dandelion] undo the past, undo us [to drink our selves from swamp and swell] is that a bargain? do you speak to me—are you capable of speech or are you just repeating others: drown its bogblood in water, KILL IT! bury Long Shadow back in deep trenches and not anymore pain [with gratitude, mother] rainbows will rein in wood and field and never another war—never another orphan torn from its mother’s breast—never a pulled thread in the stitchery of your peace. If only this pest were no more—this orphan, this me, this us, war-dredged animated stillborn sorrow /// Such a world is not easily spun. /// Not easily? How much would you erase? How much uproot, unfabric, rip the tapestry off the land— a wound here, a pestilence there, this child with torn-out limbs, this blind KILL IT! these gouged eyes, this crushed throat this village screams forever, this marsh conceals corpses—petrified logs dead for millennia— destroy the whole land while you’re at it! /// I refuse your tale, that the land is fashioned from wars; I stitched it myself, Long Shadow, back when the world was young— of dawn and dew and the joy of pitched tents, of the braiding of my hair with thread and brass tokens, of spiked goatmilk and the words sung in my honor under the harvesting of the stars /// and I refuse your tale, that the whole land was made from sweets like moonbeam candy, much less by you. There’d always been wars. Always someone writhed in pain, and always someone else called the battle beautiful, a ravenfeast KILL IT! adorned with blood-rubies bladesong and such nonsense that makes children come to rot unseen by the likes of you— how would you now assuage our pain? you say I stole these children: look again, babes cut out from slain mothers, or else refused life through knife and poison, and who would blame our mothers? not even us /// I need to think, Long Shadow, of what you’ve told me here. If wrongs cannot be rectified, how can I help you then? What good my presence? /// Oh. You turn away. Predictable, now that you know we’re the children that nobody wants— stolen from dead hands, discards born maimed, imperfect, torn, too damaged for healing— [of course she turns away] but what would you say if I said that some of us have been plucked hale babes from loving parents KILL IT! undamaged goods [will she turn away now?] Will you turn away now? Or would you stay to speak to us, or would it make no difference? Immortals and mortals alike recoil from maimed children. Easier not to see the horrors inflicted upon us, easier to pretend that nothing bad has happened here. You cannot change unless you kill. What need do I have of your changing? /// I will think of your words and return. /// I do not believe you. [do you believe her?] KILL IT! return— to what purpose? I do not believe you I do not believe you I do not believe you /// The Journeymaker walks out (II) I shall stand on your steps, Biruté, disdained by your toad and beaver, and the child. How can you stand this—so many truths and none, wrapped in mold and silver. No, I do not wish to run from it, from them—but what can I do? If there’s nothing to do, then why does the land cry out to me, whisper in my ears to seek a healing? The river flows. It flows past pastures, past meadows of bluebell and periwinkle, through the wild tangled thicket where the wolf bears down the mother deer. Her young will die—and their bones grow through with wildflowers. Listen, the river flows beneath the everchanging moon that casts a bitter shadow into the waters. Have you seen the boats capsize, and weddings end in drownings? Have you seen bodies nibbled by the fish, the weeds that grow from those deaths, the waterlilies? That, too, is the river. You say ignore these ills, for they are only natural? No. Listen. Tell me, what does the river do? and if it does not do, then what’s the point of rivers? What is the purpose of the moon? The push and pull of the tides, the incessant changing of it that changes not at all? I’m not here to flow, Biruté, or to contend myself with inaction. I protect this land with arm and sword, I fight off those who would wreck it with plough and battering ram—I protect the land from worse ills, unspeakable ills, from the ravening of plagues, and from people who come from the stars despite prohibitions, to break and kill and strip bare—I fight this. I bring the dying to my cave high in the crags, and while nobody watches I sing the Sword of Healing over mortal wounds, then let them go, and seek no gratitude. I stitch paths through wars old and new, and I lead out those who pray to me. My path is not the moon’s, or the river’s, Biruté. If I cannot do, if there’s no help that is asked, or even possible, what is it that you want from me? Sister, attend. Cease of your words and attend. Some wrongs cannot be rectified; as the river flows, some wrongs become life. The Journeymaker stops the world I lift my arms to the sky, the shifting stars that ever walk with me— I know that I’m to right the wrongs, to hold the Sword of War safe in its scabbard, the Sword of Song forever bare and poised to heal; if that is meaningless, the world will stop from breath, the rivers from flowing, the mountains from slow growth, the trees from sap, the wind from its birth, the rainbow bridges from their shining, the bounty of the rain from its harvest—the birds to freeze mid-flight, and the land to stop from its tilting. Here, in the forevernow empty of breath and significance, I draw again on the sword of bronze. I come, Journeymaker, though my work is not done, I step over emptinesses that froze between us, I move without motion in this place that is no-place. Beloved, let me braid your hair with threads of sungold and with brass tokens. I’ve forged new ones while I worked on other tasks you’d set to me: star and skylark, raindrops and the wheeling of the sun. Keddar, an oracle has told me that your deeds have birthed the wars. Others said that wars have been here forever, the whole land marrow-made from them, and no escape. There’s never been an escape. Day and night I toil to keep the land safe from harm—I rest fitfully, I sleep alone between the bare bones of the earth, I soar with heaviness. Beloved, I am tired of these accumulated lives, misdeeds, of the hurts unhealed, unending suffering of those I cannot touch, and those I can. When will there be a forgetting? I do not deny my crimes. You would not let me if I wanted, And I will never want. I led soldiers in battle joyfully—I found gladness in the vanquishing of my foes, the ruination of cities. In your service, I remember, and let the remembering make me. In your service, I work to do differently. I do not know if that will be enough. Some wrongs can never be undone. They could be quilted over. Yes, you could, but you would know what’s been mended and hidden under the newly beautiful cloth. That too will become soiled and torn. It always does. Why should I keep at my stitching? Why not let the whole tapestry go, unravel, fall into dust between my fingers? Why should the world keep its tilting? Love, do you ask, how to aid those who refused you, and if they keep refusing you, then you will stop the world, undo everything? Do not call me that if even you will turn against me. I will never turn against you— never again. But these truths call out for you. They whisper, they ask: Go, return painful lives, or nothing? Mistakes we seek in vain to amend, lives— all the rugged breaths, living, surviving— crooked, but surviving Go, return to the tasks I have set you, between frozen stars or a nothingness. sow peace and reap it with a bloody scythe, bring back severed threads and call them beautiful. Return when you’re done, if there’s a world to return to, with the tokens you made for me, to spin the ashes of my anger into a gray thread for my hair. As you command. The Journeymaker comes to no conclusion Across the winter grows the shadow long, across the spring it ripens to life, and then it comes to devastation. In summer, the blue of broken eggs whispers at me, the unborn birds stolen by lynx and squirrel. That is not the wheel, I say as the wheel turns. I separate seasons from unseasons, and yet the pain fills the bones of the world, until it has always been so. I heal, they turn away. I walk alone, I scream, let me do what’s required of me to make these threads sing—but even the threads that rotted resist their pulling. When I return to seek Long Shadow—will I speak over to hush their voice, or attend? Before I can, I’ll make for me a journey through rock and wind, sail the seawater—consider what I have learned from this, while the world tilts, and come to no conclusion. Some wrongs cannot be rectified: that in itself is a story. That in itself is the world, much as I resist it: raveled threads that grow wild from suffering, bloom in memory’s long forgetting, that strive with riotous colors— Some wrongs become life.

Rose Lemberg is a queer immigrant from Eastern Europe. Her work has appeared in Apex, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Interfictions, and other venues. Rose edits Stone Telling, a magazine of boundary-crossing poetry, with Shweta Narayan. She has edited Here, We Cross, an anthology of queer and genderfluid speculative poetry from Stone Telling (Stone Bird Press), and The Moment of Change, an anthology of feminist speculative poetry (Aqueduct Press), and is currently editing a new fiction anthology, An Alphabet of Embers. You can find Rose at her website and on Twitter @roselemberg, and support her on Patreon.

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