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Seventeen Steps

Published September 2011.

“It’s seventeen steps down the old path,” she said.

“Not more or less, dear, or you’ll end up dead,

Then turn to the left and count all your toes,

Your fingers and eyeballs and even your nose.

Follow the footsteps that lead to the woods

Where darkness and danger and shadows like hoods

Cling to the trees like a leech on its prey—

You’d better walk fast or you won’t get away.

Take the first pathway that leads to the right,

Downward and inward, away from the light.

Terror may seize you but don’t you turn back—

There’s six hundred goblins out trailing your tracks.

Look for the voices which shimmer and sing,

And then you must ask them to give you their wings.

Take them and fly through the canyon below

Till you get to the edge where the wild things grow.

Deep in the tangle of brambles and thorns

You’ll find a gold jacket, all tattered and torn.

Don’t you dare touch it, whatever you do—

Though tempting it seems, it just won’t get you through.

Three steps past the jacket you’ll find a tight hole;

Stomp loud with your feet till you bring out the mole,

Then sing him a song of lost love long ago,

Till the leaves in the trees whisper tales of dark woe.

Now, quick, while he sleeps, climb down into the hole,

You’re closer than ever to reaching your goal.

Take the top tunnel, then right left left right,

And soon now the sunlight will grow in your sight,

Stronger and brighter, just follow your eyes,

You’ll come to the exit, but don’t mind the size—

It’s meant for a mole, not a creature so big,

So roll up your sleeves, dear, and dig, dig, dig, dig.

The wind will be cartwheeling out of the west,

So run like a shadow and don’t stop to rest.

The end waits not more than fifteen feet away,

Just dodge past the flickering edge of the day.

And, yes, there it is! On the cusp of a tree

Hangs a silver-white apple, a king of the sea.

Pluck it, my dear child, and bring him to me.”

Then my old grandmama closed her dark eyes,

Muttering words mixed with wheezes and sighs.

She slept long and hard for some ten thousand nights,

Till the day that I brought her that apple, still white.