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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,

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:
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
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,
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
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
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
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?]
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
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?

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.

R.B. Lemberg (they/them) is a queer, bigender immigrant originally from L’viv, Ukraine. R.B.’s work set in their fantastical Birdverse has been a finalist for the Nebula, Ignyte, World Fantasy, Locus, Crawford, and other awards. R.B.’s Birdverse collection Geometries of Belonging is currently shortlisted for the Ursula K. Le Guin Prize for Fiction. You can find R.B. on Instagram and Bluesky, on Patreon, and at
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