Always choices three and choosers losers:
The crossroads and the brothers’ triple quest
To seize the horse whose hooves outstrike the hours,
Steal the heart’s-ease nightingale, and quench
The dragon lately laying waste the fields
(The public-spirited princess as a prize).
They walk together to the tale’s beginning,
Where three roads (never two) suggest they part.
(The grandfathers told it as they knew:
Choice is not convenient “this or that,”
But “this or what?” Three might be a hundred;
Hence the tripartition of the road.)
A forest lies ahead, but not a sign,
Not a sagging, weathered fingerpost
Names a distant, unfamiliar town.
Their shoes already sopping in the dew,
A little awed by the ambiguous
Dimensions of the dawn, the brothers choose
Which road for which, but only two decide.
The youngest waits for what is his, accepts,
As we accept, who know, content to wait
To watch the cunning choosers brought to naught:
Mispronounce the magic word, spit on
The ragged man who holds the castle’s key,
And take the golden bridle, not the horse.
They walk among the cinders of the farms,
Nor ever guess the dragon is their guide;
Come bitter backward, looking at their feet;
Pass here, reflecting they are not to blame.
The one who follows the unchosen road
Will hear a footfall in the forest; learn
The word that turns the lock, because he asks
A seedy fox with whom he feels no shame
To share a meal and time in conversation.
He takes the nightingale and leaves the cage;
Investigates the habits of the dragon,
His curiosity engaged the while
Before he slips a sword between the scales.
Sometime, recalling at this intersection
The face, intent and dubious in the dawn
Upon the fox’s track that was his portion,
He smiles to recognize it as his own.