Follow the Meandering Path

Beth Cato

Follow the Meandering Path

to be nine-years-old
at my first-ever full-weekend family reunion
smothered and suffocated
by Avon-perfumed hugs
and endless inane commentary about
how big I was
then, when I thought
things couldn’t get worse
dragged to meet Pat

“you two must be friends!
you’re the same age,” chirped some aunt

it took me three hours to escape him
three horrible hours
I slipped among the evergreens
quiet as a ninja
biting back sobs as I
ripped out my hair by the roots
to get out bits of gum
as I tried not to look
at my favorite shirt, now speckled red
from his flecks of fruit punch

none of the adults had cared
one stupid uncle even clapped Pat on the back
saying, “Boys will be boys, eh?”

but oh, everyone fussed
when I finally smacked a fist into Pat’s nose
that blood burst more beautiful than any rose
not that I had much time
to admire the carnage
no, I hightailed it
for the meandering path into the woods
the stench of overcooked lasagna
left behind
pine needles a soft crunch underfoot
birdsong a cheerful welcome

I knew from reading a lot
that if I walked far enough
I’d reach another world
so that’s what I did
therefore I wasn’t too shocked
when a horse stepped onto the path
a beautiful, sleek chestnut
no halter, no bridle, no constraints
of modern earth

it stopped some three feet ahead
close enough that I could smell
its horsey scent, and more
something like the mustiness
of a library of old books combined
with hot cooking oil and wet dog

“what are you, a pooka? a kelpie?” I asked
because I studied mythology books
when I was supposed to study fractions
“if I ride you, will you take me off
to Fairyland or drown me in the sea?”

the horse flicked an ear
as if still making up its mind

even though I knew the horse
would probably lie, trickster that it was
I still had to ask
“if you don’t kill me outright
if I get to Fairyland, tell me
are folks nicer there? kinder?”

do grownups respect kids? love them?
I wanted to ask
but my unspoken words choked me as if
I’d eaten a big chunk of pizza crust

the horse’s dark gaze met mine
as it slowly shook its head

“not even bothering to lie to me,
huh?” I asked, disappointed
by reality yet again

“children such as you,”
it said, voice like distant thunder
“know lies the way you know sunlight
and the fact that my superiors
are crueler and more conniving
than even your own kind
is not necessarily a deterrent”

“then why did you show
yourself at all?” I asked

“Fairyland is still Fairyland
rainbows, magic, and all,
and I do have quotas to fulfill”

“you’re supposed to lure away kids
on some regular basis?” I asked
earning a nod

that’s when I decided
to help out the horse

and myself, too
because I couldn’t take
another full day of Pat

I returned a while later
Pat on my tail
crusty tissues tufted from his nostrils
his fist loaded with rocks

I scampered behind a bush
as Pat slowed down
“where’d she go?” he asked

the horse snorted in reply
to which Pat grinned
as he aimed his rocks
at a new, larger target

struck by the first stone
the horse squealed and turned around
slowly
still on the path
leading him
away and out of sight

afterward
I had no regrets even as I helped
my family search the woods
as his parents sobbed
when a year later
I wore a stiff dress
at the memorial ceremony
for the boy still gone
without a trace

I knew
I know
I should feel guilty
but I don’t

my one regret
is that I didn’t
take the horse’s offer myself
because my family
they didn’t treat me any better
when Pat was gone
the hugs became tighter, strangling
no one ever even considered
that I might be at fault somehow
a pretty little girl like me
supposed to be all smiles, no smarts

no, my one regret
based on what the horse said
based on what I did
is that maybe fierce Fairyland
is where I’ve belonged all along
and the fairies dealt me
the cruelest blow
in their rare honesty
as they let me choose
to be a fool
to be a child
unable to see beyond
the misery of a single weekend

_____________

Nebula-nominated Beth Cato is the author of the Clockwork Dagger duology and the Blood of Earth trilogy from Harper Voyager. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cats. Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.

Author’s Comments: This poem arose from one of my Poem a Day projects last year. Each April and November, the Poetic Asides blog at Writer’s Digest posts a poetry prompt each day. In April 2020, the third day’s prompt was “Follow the (blank).” My mind went to when, in my mid-teens, I was forced to spend a day at a family reunion in Cambria on the Central California coast. I didn’t get to enjoy the ocean, though—I was stuck at a camp with log cabins and nosey, judgmental adults. I wasn’t bullied like the character in my poem is, but I did end up doing laps in the woods, sulking all the while. I would have welcomed a meeting with some trickster fae, but alas.

Image Credit: A horse in an enchanted (wallup) forest is taunted by a boy jumping in silhouette (pngwing)

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