If I told you I remembered the first time we met I would be lying.
I would tell you I walked into the forest to find the hangman’s tree and
buried a box of cat bones and grave dirt at the roots,
that he emerged from the trees antler-crowned and coffee sweet.
We sinners are all alike in the end,
and there is a deeper magic to the predawn quiet between
the students stumbling home and the morning joggers coming out.
The thing about the old gods is that they never make
promises they can’t keep.
I have made myself into a promise.
Last spring he found me by the canal.
We sat shoulder to shoulder and watched the sun come up
and turn the railway cranes into crucifixes. He said nothing,
only emerged from the shadows
of the old railway yard like the edge of sleep,
lit a cigarette and watched the clouds play with the rising steam.
Once, I left him a coin at the crossroads and woke
the next morning blanketed in wisteria and thorns.
I have stopped asking how he followed me to the city I call home now.
Even the old gods get lonely on occasion.
These days I could find him anywhere without looking.
He finds me in airports and graveyards,
the kind of gentle people once drowned their daughters for.
I leave small things for him in places
I know the light won’t reach. Tealeaves and miniatures of rum.
Seashells and fossilized ammonites.
Once, he was in a dive bar pool room in a nowhere town
where I had run to escape the noise; all cock-sure swagger,
cold lager and cheap cologne. He put a coin in the jukebox and we danced
until I could hear the baying of hounds in the bass
and names blurred to black lacework up his arms.
In exchange for my peace, the poems are everywhere.
They crowd the lids of pens and spill out of coffee cups.
I asked for the chaos that would fill empty pages and he kept me.
There have been times I questioned the wisdom of my wish
and tried to sink myself in the still waters of a calm kind of love.
I tore up the notebooks and clamped my lips shut.
In the end we always find our way back to air.
He never made me ask twice.
I know what it is to carry unuttered
yearning in the whisky-laced night.
So tell me your name, dreamer.
Tell me the promises you made
to yourself and what you’d bargain
Don’t be shy;
the sun will come up too soon.
Leah Atherton is a linguist, poet and runner based in Birmingham, UK. She had poems about her adventures featured by iRunFar and Porridge magazines and Brum Radio Poets. Elsewhere, her work has appeared in Birmingham Art Gallery and on BBC Radio WM, and was included as part of Beatfreeks anthology Wilder Dreams and Louder Voices. Her debut poetry collection, A sky the colour of hope came out with Verve Poetry Press in 2020. She believes in strong coffee, campfire whisky and the power of muddy shoes.
Find Leah on Instagram at @poet_on_the_run
photo by Oscar Keys (via unsplash)