One of the staples of folklore, legends and fairy tales is making deals with the Powers That Be (Rumpelstiltskin, The Girl without Hands, Nix by the Mill Pond). This might be motivated by curiosity or longing; but most often, it’s an attempt to escape a desperate situation. This can be something as simple as praying for deliverance in return for, say, a promise to be a better person next time. (Good luck with that.)
Or, it can take the shape of a classic deal with the devil, and we all know what that will get you. Bad things.
Sometimes, if you’re not only desperate but close to the veil, the otherworld might seek you out. This happens to the protagonist of The Sea Witch’s Bargain, a short story about an ordinary hedge witch with some heavy otherworld connections. While on the run from a brotherhood of sorcerers, she unwittingly enters the lair of a sea witch, a devious, malevolent creature who tricks her into performing a dangerous task in return for help in escaping her situation. This is non-negotiable, of course.
Any divine entity worth its salt will guide you to find your own strength because let’s face it, one desperate situation often leads to another, and the universe isn’t your personal wizard. But why summon your own strength when you can play with fire and summon something from the otherworld? That’s easier and much more exciting. You’ll get what you ask for, even if it’s stupid. And you might even be happy for a time—until your payment comes due.
An otherworld being like a demon, a jinn or an elf serves itself. It will look upon your troubles with cavalier disdain and will demand a high price for its services, a price it won’t bother to mention, or sounds simple enough, or couldn’t possibly be as bad as your original problem. Thou fool! These beings are tricky and they don’t lose. And, well, you signed in blood on the dotted line, didn’t you.
Crossroads symbolism appears in ancient religions, medieval folklore and hoodoo (Faust, Robert Johnson). The place where two paths meet is liminal, like a gate, the border of a forest, a well, a cave, etc. These places hold power because they are between the worlds, a point of transition. They are also frequented by beings on the other side who are looking for a foothold in this world. Tales abound of idiots who use crossroads to summon otherworld entities for personal gain. This usually involves a sacrifice, whether it is something the summoner offers up, is demanded by the summoned, or both.
While folklore advises steering clear of crossroads, it is a powerful psychological metaphor. We’ve all reached crossroads in our lives, where we must choose a path that involves letting go of something we’re attached to. This could be an old pattern, an outworn belief, something like that. And who hasn’t tried wriggling out of doing that by bargaining with one’s demons? Those kinds of choices can bind us in unhappy situations for years.
My original idea for A Northward Gaze involved a woman in an old manor house who sees faces and shapes in the floral patterns of her bedroom wallpaper. As darkness unfolds, however, she discovers a devastating family curse that began with a three-centuries-old crossroads bargain with the Elven Fae. Beautiful, terrible, inscrutable and utterly seductive, the elves will continue their unholy rampage unless she gives up the one thing most dear to her in all the world. Because the most powerful choices require the greatest sacrifices.
For examples of what not to do on a crossroads, you can read A Northward Gaze on Amazon for much cheaper than an elf would charge you. Enjoy…and be careful what you wish for.
© F.T. McKinstry 2023. All Rights Reserved.
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