I consult the Oracle while she sweeps the kitchen floor; my spilled guts collect in little piles with the cat hair and the pine needles. Tossing this detritus in the trash, she tells me to let go of the presumption that my gods have abandoned me. She reminds me that I am no more the person I was when I met them half a lifetime ago than they are now the men they were that same fateful day. People grow; why not gods? I cannot expect our relationship to remain static when we three have changed so much, nor can I expect the old methods of communion to yield the same results. I have to discover who and what we have become in the years we’ve walked this shared road, and where we are meant to go from here. To do this I must have faith, the Oracle says. Faith is not a passive state, it is a choice we make actively every day. I must let go of my death grip on the past and choose to have faith in the gods to which I pledged myself, and trust that everything will work out as intended.
The Oracle’s words are wise, I know they are, and I cannot ignore the truth in them. Yet I’m so afraid – too afraid, perhaps, to risk the rest of my wounded heart solely on faith – and so I make a face at her and go back to playing on my phone.
This January marks six years since Bast called me to begin walking Her path. Like a kitten first opening its eyes to glimpse the warm presence which has nurtured it from birth, comprehending now that Mother is an entity unto itself, so I went from stumbling agnosticism to sudden unwavering faith. With eyes wide open I saw so clearly all which had seemed before too good to be true; spirits, magic, witchcraft, other realms, and of course the gods.
Bast kindled my conscious spiritual journey that year. Under Her patient tutelage I waded into the waters of polytheism and the modern pagan community. Though I had long believed in “something”, even felt as if that something watched over me, only now did I have a name and established frameworks to build from. There was so much to learn! So much to unlearn! I felt every bit the uncoordinated kitten, yet an uncoordinated kitten who could take chances and make mistakes in the safety of mother’s watchful presence.
Other gods came in time – Inanna, Wepwawet, the Morrigan, Hathor – and their paths often required more focus than Bast’s, yet She remained always at my side. Even in my deepest depression, when I questioned not just the existence of the gods but the very concept of the soul and all that animated the universe, still I felt Her beside me in the darkness. I could not doubt Her existence when Her inextinguishable flame burned in my own chest. I am a child of Bast; it was She who shaped my soul into existence and it will bear Her mark for eternity.
So here I am, six years along on a journey I never imagined I’d take. My spirituality threads through every aspect of my life and plays a major role in all that I do. I am many things now – proud kemetic, proud polytheist pagan, proud witch – and no longer the uncoordinated kitten, though neither am I yet the confident adult. I’m still learning and unlearning, making mistakes, discovering new paths and identities. Through it all Bast is here to guide me and I remain so honored, so humbled, to walk Her path and do Her work in this world.
Perhaps I have always walked death’s road. After all, my corpse so easily reaches out ‘cross space and time to touch its siblings: to lay in the snow on a stark Russian mountainside (it was not your fault, Igor, you could not have known); to curl up among the masses huddled beneath Pompeii’s tephra burial shroud; to drown in Sendai’s monstrous waves or freeze in the north Atlantic on a clear April night. These deaths, these beloved dead, are clear as my own memories. Is this witchcraft? Is this wyrd? (Is this anything?)
Behold, my 2020 book list! 2020 wasn’t kind to me reading-wise, as being part of my state’s covid response really messed up my overall schedule, so I read way fewer books this year than in most years. Still, I made up for that by reading some REALLY good books – including 26 with queer characters and at least 13 from authors of color. Highlights included The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home, The Shadow of Kyoshi, and the Locked Tomb, Broken Earth, and Ascendant trilogies. House of Leaves was good, but I was expecting it to have a higher body count and I wanted more spooky house shenanigans and less relationship angst.
Did you read any of these books? DO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT THEM WITH ME?? Let me know!
All the Windwracked Stars – Elizabeth Bear
The Grand Escape – Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Flaming Lioness: Ancient Hymns for Egyptian Goddesses – Chelsea Luellon Bolton
By the Mountain Bound – Elizabeth Bear
The Sea Thy Mistress – Elizabeth Bear
She-ra and the Princesses of Power: Legend of the Fire Princess – Gigi D.G
House of Leaves – Mark Z Danielewski
Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition – Paul Watson
Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns From Sumer – Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer
The Cat in Ancient Egypt – Jaromir Malek
Karen Memory – Elizabeth Bear
March Was Made of Yarn: Reflections on the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown – Ed. by Elmer Luke and David Karashima
Down With the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic – Steven Biel
Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone – Richard Lloyd Parry
Deathless Divide (Dread Nation) – Justina Ireland
Stone Mad: A Karen Memory Adventure – Elizabeth Bear
The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home: A Welcome to Night Vale Novel – Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
Lord of Strength and Power: Ancient Hymns for Wepwawet – Chelsea Luellon Bolton
Descent to theGoddess: A Way of Initiation for Women – Sylvia Brinton Perera
The Essential Rumi – Trans. by Coleman Barks
The Best of Elizabeth Bear – Elizabeth Bear
Mongrels – Stephen Graham Jones
Gideon the Ninth (The Locked Tomb Trilogy Book 1) – Tamsyn Muir
The Shadow of Kyoshi – FC Lee
Harrow the Ninth (The Locked Tomb Trilogy Book 2) – Tamsyn Muir
Drowning in the Floating World: Poems – Meg Eden
Lord of the Ways: An Anthology for Wepwawet – Ed. Dianne Bolton
Seven Devils – Laura Lam and Elizabeth May
The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth Book 1) – N K Jemisin
The Obelisk Gate (The Broken Earth Book 2) – N K Jemisin
Heathen: Volume 3 – Natasha Alterici
The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth Book 3) – N K Jemisin
Dragon Pearl – Yoon Ha Lee
Excuse Me, Are You A Witch? – Emily Horn and Pawet Pawlak
Crow And Weasel – Barry Lopez and Tom Pohrt
Girls of Paper and Fire – Natasha Ngan
Wilder Girls – Rory Power
The Scapegracers – Hannah Abigail Clarke
The Deep – Rivers Solomon
The Priory of the Orange Tree – Samantha Shannon
Three for the Road: Stories from Dread Nation – Justina Ireland
The Tiger’s Daughter (The Ascendant Trilogy Book 1) – K Arsenault Rivera
The Phoenix Empress (The Ascendant Trilogy Book 2) – K Arsenault Rivera
Girls of Storm and Shadow – Natasha Ngan
Witch Pilgrim Heretic – K.D. Hume
Titanic: Psychic Forewarnings of a Tragedy – George Behe
Perfectly. Immanuel means “God with us” and you all have been the best representative of such statement through and through. Each new rescue, whatever the case: from simple muscle sprain to malignant tumor. From mere parasite infestation to terminal injury. Young, old, female, male, when they come into our home; you: the whiskers’ syndicate delivers. […]
You may be a god, my love, but here on my blade you die like any mortal and here in my forest you rot like any animal. Fear not; I am here with you in your dying, just as I shall be with you in your rotting. I shall be with you when your laboring heart finally spasms and stills (not too long now, you have lost so much blood already). I shall be with you when your cells begin to slowly suffocate en masse, thirty trillion microscopic deaths triggered by your last shallow breath. I shall be with you as your cooling meat begins to spoil. I shall be with you when the coyotes tear at your choicest organs, muzzles stained red and tongues lolling (your godblood tastes so sweet, you know, it is the only drink I have ever hungered for), and the crows bicker over the honor of pecking out your eyes. I shall be with you as your flesh is consumed like holy communion to feed my host of scavengers and decomposers, leaving only your lovely bones behind as grave markers. And I shall be here still when fungi sprout up through the sockets of your whitening skull and wildflowers twine around the bars of your rib cage, nourished on the nutrients of your long forgotten corpse which yet enrich the soil. I am always with you, beloved, so fear neither the blade nor the breaking down. Death has ever been your dearest companion.
In another life I might have been a priestess, but the gods I serve don’t need a temple or a following. They need their story told. They need a scribe. So here I am.
I serve the Sun and Moon. The names they chose to give me are Tanim and Daren, though you will know them under other names: Satan and Lucifer, Will and Hannibal, Patroclus and Achilles, the Oak and Holly Kings. They’ve had many names and lived countless lives. Their stories may be familiar to you as well. Life, death; love, hate; sacrifice, betrayal.
On the winter solstice the Sun will die by his lover’s hand. The Moon started this cycle eons ago, though even I could not tell you exactly why. On the summer solstice the Sun will resurrect and slay the Moon in turn. Thus the wheel of the year is greased with blood, life paid for with life, death with death. Sometimes they go to their deaths willingly; others they struggle in vain against immutable fate; but always a solstice ends with death. Even gods cannot change such things.
As their scribe I record these deaths, whatever they show me in whatever form they dictate. Between solstices I continue to write for them, memories and dreams and scenes, anything they require. There’s not much here that’s lovely or light – it’s a mythos steeped in blood, full of cruelty and heartache, but there’s beauty in it too. And love, of a complicated sort. Love that cut down the host of Heaven and slayed a Dragon on a cliff side.
Take a dip into the dark river. See what my eighteen years as scribe have produced so far.
When the Lighthouse was completed and the Magician first lit the beacon, its light swept across every universe in existence. It called to all the lost and wandering, the hurt, the exiled, the unwanted. This was his intention, that the Light should be a guiding star to all those wayward souls stumbling in the darkness and lead them to the island of Sanctuary. They would be his Lost Boys and he their Pan; a little island kingdom of his own to rule. Yet in his arrogance the Magician never considered his message might reach someone who had been exiled for good reason, nor did he imagine he might summon someone who would not bow to him and could not be cowed by his stolen magic. But he did. The one the Lost would come to call Mage felt that first pulse of the Light from universes away and turned toward it, curious. And then she began to walk.
Some nights Mage lays on the bowsprit of the Jolly Roger and listens to the monsters in the deep groaning against their chains. She dangles her fingers in the icy seawater and sings them lullaby promises of wreckage and ruin. I know what it means to be confined, her songs soothe with wordless melody. I know what it means to be so full of rage, so lost in madness, and yet be denied your rightful vengeance. Hush, she croons, I will free you soon and we will break worlds beneath us. It is a promise to all the maligned beast-horrors exiled to the unkind places of the universe. It is a promise to herself.
As I lay in bed in the dark (click) early hours the preacher man speaks to me over Geiger counter radio crackle (click… click), he tells me if I’m lonely and (click) tired of the silence the dead are always ready to talk, they’re always (click click) so, so hungry and they would love to devour me, too; he shows me the prison down the road like that’s where they live maybe (click… click click), do they congregate there? does the prison (click click) even have a cemetery? I don’t reply to him; instead I bury my face in the pillow and speak to my absent (click) gods, the Sun and Moon, I tell them I will sit in the silence (click click click) as long as it takes for them to answer me because they’re the only ones I want to talk to, not the hungry dead or this creepy preacher ghost-thing, but inside I know I’m afraid if I listen to the dead for too long I won’t be able to stop (click click clickclickclick clickclickclickclickclickclick —).
The solstice approaches and I consider the death of gods. I think of Inanna walking proudly through the underworld’s seven gates to her death on the meat hook, of Odin hanging nine days dead on the world tree and Christ laying three days dead in the tomb. I think of Osiris, Persephone, Proserpina, Dumuzi, Baldr. Of Aphrodite weeping over Adonis and Achilles weeping over Patroclus.
And then there is you, Lord Sun, fairest and most beloved. The solstice approaches, yet you do not drown me in dreams of blood or deafen me with your cacophonous wailing like past years. Your halls are silent, your rooms are empty, and I wonder why. Could it be that you go willingly to your death this time? Have you made some sort of peace with it like those other harvest gods destined for the slaughter, those deities who sacrificed themselves for wisdom or were punished for being too beautiful, too good?
Perhaps this solstice you will bow willingly to you fate, to the dying and the decay, the rot and the long rest. The wheel on which the world turns must be oiled in blood. Yet though the solstice relies on violence, that violence need not be fueled by hatred or ugliness. Death can be beautiful, a gift of mercy or love, and your death on the longest night drives the resurrection of your brother-lover and the fallow time of winter. Thus the Oak King bleeding out in his Holly King’s arms; thus you, Lord Sun, spilling out your shining golden blood in your beloved Moon’s arms.
Maybe this time we can focus on the beauty in your death, not the tragedy. What do you think?
You thought yourself so gifted by the Sight that you could miss nothing, not in the Otherworld and certainly not in this one, and look what a fucking fool you’ve been for it. He says “Let me go, Adrian, I’m not worth it, don’t risk yourself,” and you see for the first time what this man was trying to tell you with all those years of faithful service that you never once questioned, only took for granted because you thought them your due as the greatest Spiritualist of your age. Well congratulations, your name and work are certainly well known indeed to have drawn the attention of Hell itself! Now you bend over the bed and take his hand in yours, though his skin burns so hot it sears your palm, and you swear you will find a way to free him from the Devil’s clutches. His smile is a pitying thing (does he doubt your abilities or that you care enough for him to risk your life at all? you can’t tell because you haven’t bothered to learn to read him the way he’s learned to read you, oh you really have been an arrogant fool) and then it’s wiped away as he folds over with a cry of agony and you watch, helpless despite all your lofty arcane knowledge, as the taut flesh of his back splits apart, revealing a trench full of grasping, waving black tendrils where muscle and bone should be. This isn’t in any of your books, nor any tale of possession you’ve ever encountered in your travels, but you know instinctively that if you let those things touch your skin you’ll be taken over too. You tear your hand away just as fissures open along his arms, his chest, those tentacles that make you think somehow of fungi reaching for you eagerly. “I’m sorry, Damien,” you choke out, “I’ll fix this, I will,” and you run like the coward you truly are, leaving him alone to do battle with Satan while you plan your next move from the safety of your study.
I am not the granddaughter of the witches you couldn’t burn. I am not the blood of their blood or any of that suburban white witch bullshit. I am Witch because the title is mine to claim by right: by right of my rage by right of my resistance by right of my existence in a world that threatens to crush everything I love under the boot heel of assimilation. You want Burning Times? I’ll show you some motherfucking Burning Times.
Liberty Palace is perfect. It really is. After all, it was made with sympathetic magic to be the perfect home for its two occupants, a place of peace and healing after centuries of pain and struggle. And yet… some nights the beds are a little too soft or the marble floors too still, the halls too silent. No matter how Mage tosses and turns, she just can’t sleep. Her restless blood sets all her limbs twitching and her senses strain against the quiet darkness. Eventually she abandons hope of real slumber, throws on a cloak, and lets her feet take her where they will. Better than staring up at the ceiling until dawn.
One clear night Alice finds her on the roof of the observatory, crouched on the ledge with her knees drawn up against her chest. “The moons are beautiful tonight,” she comments as she sits down beside Mage, letting her long legs dangle over the edge. The women pass some time in companionable silence as they gaze up at Liberty’s star-strewn sky. One moon slips toward the horizon while another climbs higher over their heads. A cool breeze carries the heady scent of night-blooming flowers from the nearby gardens.
“I miss it,” Mage says finally, breaking the silence as she gazes out across the dark landscape. “The ship. It was the first place I felt like I truly belonged. Like it was really mine. I never felt that way on the island, not even in the good times before everything went down. But the ship…” She shrugs, a wry smile pulling at one side of her mouth, half sad and half making mockery of her own feelings. “It was home. I didn’t even realize I had grown so used to all the little things, you know? The sound of wind in the rigging, the snap of the sails, the creak of the timbers; the constant sway and roll of the deck under my feet. But now they’re gone and sometimes I feel their absence like a hole in my heart.” Her eyes flick self consciously over to Ali and then she turns her head away to hide the flush burning her cheeks, muttering, “It’s stupid, I know.”
A soft laugh from her companion makes Mage wince until Ali rests her head on her shoulder. “It’s not stupid,” the other woman sighs. “Sometimes I can’t sleep because I keep waiting for the bright pulse from the lighthouse to wash through the room. That damned thing was broken for years and yet I still find myself longing for the comfort of its steady rhythm, even after all that’s happened and despite all it represents now. Because it was home.” She tilts her head so her cheek is pressed against the curve of Mage’s neck. Mage can feel the flutter of long lashes as Alice closes her eyes and murmurs, “It will pass. We’ll fill this place with new memories and it will become a home too. Our home.”
I am a scribe without a master, an oracle without gods. How terribly embarrassing, to be fired from your soul’s work! Is there a support group for people who have been repudiated by their gods? Or am I the only person in the history of mankind useless enough to require such drastic measures? I must have deserved it; I just wish my years of loyal, if disappointing, service had merited at least a severance letter, a by-the-way email, a “don’t bother coming in on monday” text. But ghosting’s your style, I know. I can’t expect otherwise.
You will find someone new. Someone better. Perhaps you already have. I was likely a mistake, a rare poor choice on your part. You’ve chosen well before, after all: Milton; Miller; Fuller; Koja. I was surely an aberration. Maybe I had potential I never quite managed to unlock, or squandered despite your years of guidance. Maybe I peaked early and everything since has just been the slow descent to rock bottom. Who knows.
I’ll try to look at this more like an internship that came to its inevitable end and less like being fired from the only job I’ve ever had and ever wanted. I’m grateful for the experience, after all. It will look great on a resume. Maybe some lesser god with lower standards will hire me and find my work sufficient, and I will at least be engaged even if I never again feel the passion I felt when I served you. At any rate, I can always witness what your other scribes create for you and know you’re in better hands than mine. That’s what matters.
As the attendants rub scented oils into my skin, I expand my consciousness to see who will climb the mount to ask questions or beg blessings from the gods today. I see a farmer first, browned and bent from years of labor beneath the sun. His wife is barren and they wish desperately for a child of their own. I will tell him she must bathe in the river every night for an entire run of the moon, and if she does this without fail the gods will bless them with a child. I will not tell him this child will be a demigod, however, or that his life will be filled with tribulations and sorrow. That is the boy’s prophecy to seek.
Next I see a man in much regalia riding a fine steed, a contingent of soldiers at his back. Ah, a general! He wishes to know the outcome of an upcoming battle of great importance. I will tell him I see a decisive victory for his army, but that the hidden cost may be higher than his nation can afford. Drunk on the promise of conquest, he will not listen to these cautions – they never do, no matter how far they travel to hear my words. All they want is glory, fame, and riches. What matters the cost to them when they are not the ones who pay it?
Lastly I see a young woman just barely out of girlhood who travels alone from her tiny village to seek my counsel. In her pocket she carries the meager earnings she’s saved all year; coin enough, she hopes, to buy an audience with the Oracle. There is no future for her in that dreary town but marriage to a man as old as her father and a life birthing brats until she dies in childbed. She dreams I might tell her she is secretly royalty, or will be chosen by a handsome prince to become his wife and queen. I will tell her nothing, though, because we will never meet; there are bandits waiting around the next bend of the–
“Okay, how do you feel?” The massage therapist turns the lights back up. I peel open my eyes, blink up at foam core ceiling tiles. “Good,” I answer by habit, but I honestly have no idea if that’s true.
I was drowning. Pandemics, wildfires, depression, abandonment, grief, grief, grief. The sky is red and the air is toxic. I was so deep in the well I was sure this time I truly wouldn’t be able to climb back out. I thought this was something from which there was no return. So I begged. Send me something, anything, please.
Hetheru sent a bright sunflower growing straight out of a concrete barrier in the middle of the interstate. Wepwawet sent a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed coyote dashing in front of my car, apparently running late to an early morning meeting. Bast sent a sweet old cat named Oreo whose eyes held the piercing gaze of my mother goddess as I drove past his home. The Morrigan sent ravens and crows and ospreys and scrub jays. And my father sent the Green Weenie, a bright green Plymouth Road Runner with a black racing stripe, a car he sold over twenty years ago, a car I have not once seen since the day someone else drove it out of our yard when I was, what, ten? eleven?, but there it was, right on the waterfront happy as you please as if it’s been living beside me all these years just waiting to show up when I needed it most. I’d been thinking as I drove home from work, I should have done more in those last few days, those last hours, why didn’t I do more? Why didn’t I beg him to stay? What would he say to me now, about his final moments on earth? Is he mad I didn’t try harder? and there the car was around a bend in the road, just minutes from my house, to tell me he loved me and that after thirteen years I needed to finally forgive that child who could not have known she would lose the person she loved most. That car told me he was proud of me for the work I’m doing, serving my state during these disasters and striving to mitigate the ones to come. That car told me to breathe, to rest, to give myself a goddamn break.
Have faith, my gods, my guides, told me. Be kind to yourself. We’re here.
Resurrected by the dying light and trailing the dirt of your grave pit, my corpse once more takes up its patrol. The alley; the living room; the bedroom; the roof. Finding no evidence of habitation, not even a drop of blood or the faint linger of cigarette smoke, it returns once more to the alley to start the round over again. Driven by duty to the approaching solstice, it will continue this pointless vigil no matter how much dust accumulates as proof of your final abdication. Such a dumb, brute thing! It simply cannot comprehend that you are never coming back. Yet I suppose I should not blame it – your instructions are carved into its bones, woven into its muscles, encoded in its cells. Even in death my poor corpse knows no rest and will limp along until its rotting limbs can carry it no longer. Foolish thing. Look what loyalty earned you.
The picking could be worse!
At least I didn’t make anything bleed today.
Well, this morning.
Okay, in the last hour.
…anything that’s visible to others.
But I promise I’ll be better!
I’ll go cold turkey right now.
I mean, starting tomorrow.
Okay, starting Monday.
Well, the first Monday of next month.
this would make a great New Year’s resolution.
I know someone’s waitingYears of dreams just can’t be wrong!Arms will open wide.I’ll be safe and wantedFin’lly home where I belong.Well, starting now, I’m learning fastOn this journey to the past Home, Love, Family.There was once a timeI must have had them, too.Home, Love, Family,I will never be completeUntil I find you… One step at […]
The ghost women in the walls sway with river current, hair drifting in reedy halos, eyes like fresh dug graves (a tired comparison but an apt one), they reach down from the ceiling for me while their viola voices vibrate a song which I will mourn the loss of upon waking, and though I know they mean to pull me through and switch our places, lock me in their two-dimensional tomb and steal my warm, vibrant life for their own, still I reach back, rising slowly up through the air to meet those filmy moonglow fingers, almost close enough to touch as the music swells; it is lovely just to be wanted, no matter the reason, and anyway I already know what it is to be dead, why should I mind being dead somewhere else?
Now I know you are gone, truly gone because I no longer hear your voice in my head that subtle blade which you wielded so expertly to reopen old wounds and when did you ever miss a chance to remind me of my failures?