It’s the one where the king is out riding
through a dark forest and suddenly a witch
steps in front of his horse. The horse
rears up, but the king remains calm.
He knew that forest was haunted.
In those days, all the forests were haunted.
“What do you want, witch?”
he demands. And the witch says,
“Unless you return to this spot
within three days with the correct answer
to the following question, you will die.”
No reason for this to be happening. No reason
why he’s the one she stopped except
it was cool that morning inside her hovel,
so she walked out to stand in a patch
of sunlight, into which the king came riding.
“Three days,” she cackles, repeating it
just for fun. “Then tell me the question,”
says the king, steadying his horse. You know
what happens next. The question’s impossible.
The king searches night and day,
and everything he comes up with is wrong,
until by chance, at the last minute
he discovers the answer, gallops back,
tells the witch, and is saved.
Maybe the question was: What do women want?
Maybe something even harder. The point is,
there’s an answer. That was the world
the king lived in, full of inexplicable dangers,
but at the end: certainty. That was why
the king could be brave and calm, and why
his horse, who wasn’t able to think about danger
but felt it, needed to be steadied,
why the king touched her neck reassuringly,
then leaned down and spoke in her ear.
“There, there,” he lied. “Nothing’s wrong.”
Lawrence Raab is the author of seven poetry collections, including What We Don’t Know About Each Other, winner of the National Poetry Series, and a finalist for the National Book Award, The Probable World, Visible Signs: New and Selected Poems, and his latest collection, The History of Forgetting, all published by Penguin. He teaches literature and writing at Williams College.