Ballad of Ankou

Jack Burch

 

In lonely wandering one night
beneath the paper moon
I stumbled on a frightening sight:
the ghostly old Ankou.

He stood beneath a Cypress tree
and cast a baleful eye—
A skeleton in threadbare rags
beneath a tombstone sky.

So dignified he seemed to me,
appearing so at home,
and yet, at once unsatisfied—
a king denied his throne.

Well in the gloom I could not see
more than his dim outline
So I addressed him jovially
and offered him my time.

“Good friend,” said I, “you should not be
alone so late at night.
I’ll gladly keep you company
beneath this pale moonlight.”

A banshee wind did issue then
that shook the moss-choked trees,
and made the fabric of his coat
whip wildly in the breeze.

He did not deign to make a sound,
but kept his gaze on me
to offer up a deathly smile
from his propriety.

“Good sir,” said I, “you should not be
out in this dreadful chill.
You’ll find no warmth beneath that tree,
it’s cold enough to kill.”

Well bones did crack in graveyard earth
and bats perchanced to fly
and witches howled in witchy mirth
and clouds conquered the sky.

Yet still my curiosity
sufficed to still my feet,
though when, at length, I spoke again
I spoke in timbre meek:

“Good friend,” said I, “we should not be
out in the coming storm!
If you will but come back with me,
I’ll take you somewhere warm!”

“I’m quite contented with the night,”
I heard the strange man groan
“but I will join you in the light
so you are not alone.”

Well then he stepped out from the tree
and gave a frightful shock,
for now I could so clearly see
his bones all interlocked.

This ghastly man, a skeleton
gestured with a wave.
“Now that you have beheld my face,
I’ll guide you to your grave.”

My heart did pound inside my chest,
my blood had turned to ice—
I asked if some other bargain
would possibly suffice.

He shook his head and beckoned on
my head began to wheel—
but I held quickly to my wit
and thought to strike a deal.

“Good sir,” said I, “you must agree
this is a lovely Weald.
I have but one final request:
To sleep beneath this field.”


The ghostly man gave me a nod,
and turned slowly around.
He then produced a shovel blade
and pressed it to the ground.

“Good sir,” said I, “you must agree
to put away your toil.
I’d like to dig with my own hands
my home within the soil.”

He passed the shovel on to me
and gestured to the earth.
My spirits leapt dramatically,
As I began with mirth—

An hour passed, or maybe more
as I produced my pit.
More work than I had done before,
but it befit my wit.

At last my efforts bore their fruit:
a hole of pleasing depth
I stretched myself out in the earth,
pleased with its length and breadth.

“Good sir,” said I, “you must agree
to try this out yourself.
No finer grave has ‘ere been made
if I say so myself.”

But still his rudeness knew no bounds
as I rejoined his side.
He simply shook his bony head
and crossed his arms to chide.

“Do you think me so much a fool,”
I heard the specter hiss,
“To fall for such an easy trap?
Such blinding arrogance.”

I placed a hand upon his spine
and thought it over well.
“Good friend,” said I, “you should have learned
to be content with Hell!”

With all my strength I gave a shove
and in the grave he fell
to clash and clatter at the drop—
a stone thrown in a well.

With all the quickness of the storm
I piled up all the loam
I’d borrowed from the forest floor
to seal up his new home.

The wind did shriek, the storm did flash
he howled down below,
but I held tightly to my task
within that dark meadow.

At length at last the deed was done
I set the grave with stone,
and humming out a jaunty tune
I made my way back home.

That man is out there still, I think
all angry in his grave—
But when I walk those woods once more
I’ll go another way.

 

I’ve always been enamored with the Gothic, particularly to those elements that evoke the supernatural. To that end, I wanted to write a poem that captured the feeling of an old folktale. In honor of my favorite creature of myth, I decided to write on the Ankou, a figure from old Breton lore said to be a skeletal guardian of graveyards.

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