The White Road

by Neil Gaiman


"I wish that you would visit me one day, in my house.

There are such sights I would show you."


My intended lowers her eyes, and, yes, she shivers.

Her father and his friends all hoot and cheer.


"That's never a story, Mr. Fox," chides a pale woman

in the corner of the room, her hair corn-fair,

her eyes the grey of cloud, meat on her bones,

she curves, and smiles crooked and amused.


"Madame, I am no storyteller," and I bow, and ask,

"Perhaps, you have a story for us?" I raise an eyebrow.

Her smile remains.


She nods, then stands, her lips move:


"A girl from the town, a plain girl, was betrayed by her lover,

a scholar. So when her blood stopped flowing,

and her belly swole beyond disguising,

she went to him, and wept hot tears. He stroked her hair,

swore that they would marry, that they would run,

in the night,

together,

to his aunt. She believed him;

even though she had seen the glances in the hall

he gave to his master's daughter,

who was fair, and rich, she believed him.

Or she believed what she believed.


"There was something sly about his smile,

his eyes so black and sharp, his rufous hair. Something

that sent her early to their trysting place,

beneath the oak, beside the thornbush,

something that made her climb the tree and wait.

Climb a tree, and in her condition.

Her love arrived at dusk, skulking by owl-light,

carrying a bag,

from which he took a mattock, shovel, knife.

He worked with a will, beside the thornbush,

beneath the oaken tree,

he whistled gently, and he sang, as he dug her grave,

that old song...

shall I sing it for you, now, good folk?"


She pauses, and as a one we clap and holloa — or almost as a one:

My intended, her hair so dark, her cheeks so pink,

her lips so red,

seems distracted.


The fair girl (who is she? A guest of the inn, I hazard) sings:


"A fox went out on a shiny night

And he begged for the moon to give him light

For he'd many miles to go that night

Before he'd reach his den–O!

Den–O! Den–O!

He'd many miles to go that night, before he'd reach is den–O."


Her voice was sweet and fine, but the voice of my intended is finer.


"And when her grave was dug—

A small hole it was, for she was a little thing,

even big with child she was a little thing–

he walked below her, back and forth,

rehearsing her hearsing, thus:

-Good evening, my pigsnie, my love,

my, but you look a treat in the moon's light,

mother of my child-to-be. Come, let me hold you.

And he'd embrace the midnight air with one hand,

and with the other, holding his short but wicked knife,

he'd stab and stab the dark.


"She trembled in her oak above him. Breathed so softly,

but still she shook. And once he looked up, and said,

Owls, I'll wager, and another time, fie! is that a cat

up there? Here puss... But she was still,

bethought herself a branch, a leaf, a twig. At dawn

he took his mattock, spade and knife, and left

all grumbling and gudgeoned of his prey.


"They found her later wandering, her wits

had left her. There were oak leaves in her hair

and she sang,


'The bough did bend

The bough did break

I saw the hole

The fox did make


'We swore to love

We swore to marry

I saw the blade

The fox did carry'


"They say that her babe, when it was born,

had a fox's paw on her and not a hand.

Fear is the sculptress, midwives claim. The scholar fled."


And she sits down, to general applause.

The smile twitches, hides about her lips: I know it's there,

it waits in her grey eyes. She stares at me, amused.


"I read that in the Orient foxes follow priests and scholars,

in disguise as women, houses, mountains, gods, processions,

always discovered by their tails— " so I begin,

but my intended's father intercedes.

"Speaking of tales — my dear, you said you had a tale?"


My intended flushes. There are no rose petals,

save for her cheeks. She nods, and says:


"My story, father? My story is the story of a dream I dreamed."


Her voice is so quiet and soft, we hush ourselves to hear,

outside the inn just the night sounds: an owl hoots,

but, as the old folk say, I live too near the wood

to be frightened by an owl.


She looks at me.


"You, sir. In my dream you rode to me, and called,

Come to my house, my sweet, away down the White Road.

There are such sights as I would show you.

I asked how I would find your house, down the white chalk road,

for it's a long road, and a dark one, under trees

that make the light all green and gold when the sun is high,

but shade the road at other times. At night

it's pitch–black; there is no moonlight on the White Road...


"And you said, Mister Fox — and this is most curious, but dreams

are treacherous and curious and dark—

that you would cut the throat of a sow-pig,

and you would walk her home behind your fine black stallion.

You smiled,

smiled, Mister Fox, with your red lips and your green eyes,

eyes that could snare a maiden's soul, and your yellow teeth,

which could eat her heart— "


"God forbid," I smiled. All eyes were on me, then, not her,

though hers was the story. Eyes, such eyes.


"So, in my dream, it became my fancy to visit your great house,

as you had often entreated me to do,

to walk its glades and paths, to see the pools,

the statues you had brought from Greece, the yews,

the poplar-walk, the grotto, and the bower.

And, as this was but a dream, I did not wish

to take a chaperone

—some withered, juiceless prune

who would not appreciate your house, Mister Fox; who

would not appreciate your pale skin,

nor your green eyes,

nor your engaging ways.


"So I rode the white chalk road, following the red blood path,

on Betsy, my filly. The trees above were green.

A dozen miles straight, and then the blood

led me off across meadows, over ditches, down a gravel path,

(but now I needed sharp eyes to catch the blood—

a drip, a drop: the pig must have been dead as anything)

and I reined my filly in front of a house.

And such a house. A Palladian delight, immense,

a landscape of its own, windows, columns,

a white stone monument to verticality, expansive.


"There was a sculpture in the garden, before the house,

a Spartan child, stolen fox half-concealed in its robe,

the fox biting the child's stomach, gnawing the vitals away,

the stoic child bravely saying nothing—

what could it say, cold marble that it was?

There was pain in its eyes, and it stood

upon a plinth upon which were carved eight words.

I walked around it and I read:

Be bold,

Be bold,

but not too bold.


"I tethered little Betsy in the stables,

between a dozen night black stallions

each with blood and madness in his eyes.

I saw no one.

I walked to the front of the house, and up the great steps.

The huge doors were locked fast,

no servants came to greet me, when I knocked.

In my dream (for do not forget, Mister Fox, that this was my dream.

You look so pale) the house fascinated me,

the kind of curiosity (you know this,

Mister Fox, I see it in your eyes) that kills cats.


"I found a door, a small one, off the latch,

and pushed my way inside.

Walked corridors, lined with oak, with shelves,

with busts, with trinkets,

I walked, my feet silent on the scarlet carpet,

until I reached the great hall.

It was there again, in red stones that glittered,

set into the white marble of the floor,

it said:

Be bold,

be bold,

but not too bold

Or else your life's blood

shall run cold.


"There were stairs, wide, carpeted in scarlet,

off the great hall,

and I walked up them, silently, silently.

Oak doors: and now

I was in a dining room, or so I am convinced,

for the remnants of a grisly supper

were abandoned, cold and fly-buzzed.

Here was a half-chewed hand, there, crisped and picked,

a face, a woman's face, who must in life, I fear,

have looked like me."


"Heaven defend us all from such dark dreams," her father cried.

"Can such things be?"


"It is not so," I assured him. The fair woman's smile

glittered behind her grey eyes. People

need assurances.


"Behind the supper room was a room,

a huge room, this inn would fit in that room,

piled promiscuously with rings and bracelets,

necklaces, pearl drops, ball gowns, fur wraps,

lace petticoats, silks and satins. Ladies' boots,

and muffs, and bonnets: a treasure cave and dressing room—

diamonds and rubies underneath my feet.


"Beyond that room I knew myself in Hell.

In my dream...

I saw many heads. The heads of young women. I saw a wall

on which dismembered limbs were nailed.

A heap of breasts. The piles of guts, of livers, lights,

the eyes, the...

No. I cannot say. And all around the flies were buzzing,

one low droning buzz.

-Bëelzebubzebubzebub they buzzed. I could not breathe,

I ran from there and sobbed against a wall."


"A fox's lair indeed," says the fair woman.

("It was not so," I mutter.)

"They are untidy creatures, so to litter,

about their dens the bones and skins and feathers

of their prey. The French call him Renard,

the Scottish, Tod."


"One cannot help one's name," says my intended's father.

He is almost panting now, they all are:

in the firelight, the fire's heat, lapping their ale.

The wall of the inn was hung with sporting prints.


She continues:

"From outside I heard a crash and a commotion.

I ran back the way I had come, along the red carpet,

down the wide staircase—too late!—the main door was opening!

I threw myself down the stairs-rolling, tumbling—

fetched up hopelessly beneath a table,

where I waited, shivered, prayed."


She points at me. "Yes, you, sir. You came in,

crashed open the door, staggered in, you sir,

dragging a young woman

by her red hair and by her throat.

Her hair was long and unconfined, she screamed and strove

to free herself. You laughed, deep in your throat,

were all a-sweat, and grinned from ear to ear."


She glares at me. The color's in her cheeks.

"You pulled a short old broadsword, Mister Fox, and as she screamed,

you slit her throat, again from ear to ear.

I listened to her bubbling, sighing, shrieking,

closed my eyes and prayed until she stopped.

And after much, much, much too long, she stopped.


"And I looked out. You smiled, held up your sword,

your hands agore—blood— "


"In your dream," I tell her.


"In my dream.

She lay there on the marble, as you sliced,

you hacked, you wrenched, you panted, and you stabbed.

You took her head from her shoulders,

thrust your tongue between her red wet lips.

You cut off her hands. Her pale white hands.

You sliced open her bodice, you removed each breast.

Then you began to sob and howl.

Of a sudden,

clutching her head, which you carried by the hair,

the flame red hair,

you ran up the stairs.


"As soon as you were out of sight,

I fled through the open door.

I rode my Betsy home, down the White Road."


All eyes upon me now. I put down my ale,

on the old wood of the table.

"It is not so,"

I told her,

told all of them.

"It was not so, and

God forbid

it should be so. It was

an evil dream. I wish such dreams

on no one."


"Before I fled the charnel house,

before I rode poor Betsy into a lather,

before we fled down the White Road,

the blood still red

(and was it a pig whose throat you slit, Mister Fox?),

before I came to my father's inn,

before I fell before them, speechless,

my father, brothers, friends— "


All honest farmers, fox-hunting men.

They are stamping their boots, their black boots.


" —before that, Mister Fox,

I seized from the floor, from the bloody floor,

her hand, Mister Fox. The hand of the woman

you hacked apart before my eyes."


"It is not so— "


"It was no dream. You Creature. You Bluebeard."


"It was not so—"


"You Gilles de Rais. You monster."


"And God forbid it should be so!"


She smiles now, lacking mirth or warmth.

The brown hair curls around her face,

roses twining about a bower.

Two spots of red are burning on her cheeks.


"Behold, Mister Fox! Her hand! Her poor pale hand!"

She pulls it from her breasts (gently freckled,

I had dreamed of those breasts),

tosses it down upon the table.

It lies in front of me.

Her father, brothers, friends,

they stare at me hungrily,

and I pick up the small thing.


The hair was red indeed, and ranks. The pads and claws

were rough. One end was bloody

but the blood had dried.


"This is no hand," I tell them. But the first

fist knocks the wind from out of me,

an oaken cudgel hits my shoulder,

as I stagger,

the first black boot kicks me down onto the floor.

And then a rain of blows beats down on me,

I curl and mewl and pray and grip the paw

so tightly.


Perhaps I weep.


I see her then,

the pale, fair girl, the smile has reached her lips,

her skirts so long as she slips, grey–eyed,

amused beyond all bearing, from the room.

She'd many a mile to go, that night.

And as she leaves,

from my vantage place on the floor,

I see the brush, the tail between her legs;

I would have called,

but could speak no more. Tonight she'll be running

four–footed, surefooted, down the White Road.


What if the hunters come?

What if they come?


Be bold, I whisper once, before I die.

But not too bold...


And then my tale is done.













About the Author:
Neil Gaiman is the award-winning author of American Gods, Stardust, Neverwhere, Coraline, and other books, as well as short stories, comics, and screenplays. For more information, please visit his website. This poem is based on the folktale Mr. Fox, which is related to the Bluebeard, Fitcher's Bird, and Robber Bridegroom cycle of stories.

The White Road is copyright © 1995 by Neil Gaiman, and first appeared in Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears. It may not be reproduced in any form without the author’s express written permission



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