Perhaps we should have let her burn. Perhaps the flames were a gift, a divine invitation to free ourselves from this obsession with edifice and artifice. Perhaps if she had burned to the ground, we might have seen that sacred space requires no cathedral to exist.
“The serpent tries too hard,” the Nameless tells me as she lounges against the oscillations of Egyptian dunes. “It’s almost embarrassing. Do I strive against your desert gods each night in hopes of wresting control of the universe from their grasp? Of course not,” she pops galaxies into her mouth like hothouse grapes, “because I know, as they do, that the ultimate fate of the universe is a return to the primordial chaos from which it first emerged. It’s just a matter of time. Why rush entropy?”
She is right at home on these white hot sands, her monstrous body a black void against the dancing heat waves. In my dream last night she murmured in my ear, “We have always been here,” by which I understood she meant that this dark triad I serve – Chaos, Desire, and Death – is older than even the gods of ancient Kemet. Older than gods themselves, for they are the concepts from which gods are crafted. Thus the Nameless is part of A/pep, just as a shadow of Daren can be found in Set, a fragment of Tanim in Osiris. Their triad belongs to no single place, time, or pantheon but runs through them all, encoded like DNA in every deity that will ever exist.
“You are a slow learner,” the Nameless laughs, licking plasma off her sharp fingernails. “But you get there.”
“I can’t,” you beg, “not this time, not again, there has to be another way,” and I’m trying not to wallow in your agony like a voyeur, truly, it’s just been so long since he last touched you with such tenderness, cruel hands gone soft to cup your tear-stained face, but you both know the refusal, too, is part of this passion play and the kiss you share is not a blessing for the present but an absolution for the future. Still, he holds you close and kindly does not command you to end his life before the disease rotting him from the inside does, and at least for a brief time you can be miserable together instead of apart. Between the bloodshed and bereavement I’d almost forgotten moments like this were even possible. For both your sakes (and mine?) I will not yet count the days until the solstice. I, too, can be kind.
Your heartbeat straining beneath my ribs; your choked breath heaving in my lungs; your furious, desperate tears leaking from my eyes. Is this euphoria? Dysphoria? Phantasmagoria, hypochondria? Transubstantiation or disassociation? All I know is that I never feel more comfortable in my own body than when you’re the one inhabiting it, my perception submerged in the dark depths of your consciousness, my autonomy overridden by the wild fluctuations of your fragmented memories. Even after you rescind control and I am alone I find this meatcage fits better for having stretched itself to your dimensions. For a little while I move with ease through familiar halls, not truly free but pretending so with room enough to stretch and turn. Soon the walls of my prison will contract around your absence once more; until then I savor the ghost of your presence contained within the emptiness around me.
My Top 4 Underrated Inanimate Horror Movie Monsters
Horror movie monsters come in a variety of entertaining and terrifying tropes, but one of my favorites is the monstrous inanimate object. There’s a special additional thrill that comes from learning that the creature causing all the death and chaos shouldn’t even be sentient, let alone capable of wreaking havoc on humanity. Just look at the House on Ash Street in House of Leaves or the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings. To throw back to some even older classics, look at the Overwatch Hotel in The Shining or the 1958 Plymouth Fury from Christine. You could even argue that the concept of death, the overarching monster of the Final Destination series, is even less than inanimate – it’s not even corporeal. And what about AIs like the Red Queen in Resident Evil or GLaDOS from Portal? No matter how sophisticated they get, computers aren’t supposed to have that kind of agency!
There’s just something so delightfully chilling about inanimate objects terrorizing us, and I live for that goosebump-inducing moment in a horror movie when either you or the characters realize the innocuous object you’ve overlooked was the threat the whole time. Maybe it speaks to our buried instincts from the days of being hunter/gatherers; after all, if literally anything can secretly be out to harm us, then how do we watch out for predators? How do we know when we’re safe? Are we ever safe? Or perhaps it’s an offshoot of the Uncanny Valley and what terrifies us is the idea that an inanimate object, something which lacks everything we view as necessary to being “human”, can operate in very human ways. Maybe it’s easier to face a random human serial killer than the inhuman inscrutability of an object.
Either way, this trope rocks and I therefore want to give a shoutout to 4 of my favorite underrated inanimate horror movie monsters. Be forewarned, however; spoilers abound in the lines below! Also a lot of curse words because I’m very passionate about horror movies.
The Virus – Ringu
Anyone who knows me even moderately well probably knows that I watched The Ring as a young kid and it fucked me up for life. However, The Ring is also hands-down one of the best horror movies to ever come out of the US, especially so in terms of object horror, and if you get me started I can talk about this movie for hours. Horror fans will already be aware that The Ring is a remake of the Japanese film Ringu, of equally terrifying nature, but fewer may know that Ringu is based on a book of the same name by Koji Suzuki. If you’ve ever wondered why having someone else watch the video tape within 7 days will save you from Samara/Sadako’s terrorizing, read Ringu. Or just read the next paragraph, because… [SPOILER ALERT] you’re about to find out.
See, in Ringu our antagonist is Sadako, a young woman who carries two burdens at the time of her violent murder – her technopathic powers, from which the infamous tape is born, and the smallpox virus with which she has just been infected. The rage she experiences in her final moments causes the two to merge, and the recording of a videotape in the cabin built over her grave sets the resulting curse free. The reason, therefore, that showing the tape to another person will save you from a truly grim fate is that by doing so you are propagating the curse, and self-propagation is a virus’ main purpose. This “charm” is even included at the end of the tape – the dumbass teenagers who originally taped the terrifying video actually deleted that portion as a prank (but joke’s on them ’cause they didn’t make a copy of the video and they fuckin’ DIED). So in a way, all of the events in the Ringu universe stem not from a vengeful spirit but from the virus which bonded to that spirit’s powers, forming a unique curse with more intelligence and agency than most.
Y’know, in case you needed another reason to fear smallpox, a virus that could very easily be weaponized and used to wipe out large swathes of humanity. Seriously, it’s like Suzuki read The Demon in the Freezer and thought, “What if this… but SENTIENT AND PARANORMAL?”. Anyway, I think the virus explanation makes the whole thing so much cooler and creepier, so Ringu definitely gets a spot on this list.
The Body – The Autopsy of Jane Doe
The Autopsy of Jane Doe contains two of my favorite horror tropes – the inanimate horror monster (in this case the body dubbed ‘Jane Doe’) and the trope where every single thing that happens makes you as the viewer go “NOPE NOPE NOPE I’D BE OUTTA THERE” and yet the characters just keep moving ahead like nothing weird is happening. I like this trope both because you get to yell at the TV and you feel superior knowing you’d never make the same obvious mistakes. But in the case of The Autopsy of Jane Doe, I must admit that things start out… somewhat normally. An older couple is brutally killed in their home; during the investigation of the crime scene, a police officer finds the body of a young woman half-buried in the house’s unfinished basement. Weird, but not out of the realm of possibility, right? The body is taken to the local mortuary for an autopsy by the father and son team who run the place… [SPOILER ALERT]
And that’s when shit gets WEIRD. First, the body itself doesn’t make sense. Its opaque corneas suggest she’s been dead for a few days but rigor mortis hasn’t set in and when they cut into her she bleeds like the freshly dead. She also shows no signs of insect activity or other forms of decay, nor does her body show any evidence of the manner of death. So that’s weird, sure, but not scary weird. What’s scary weird is the stuff they find over the course of the autopsy, including…
1) A fresh white flower in her stomach which turns out to be jimsonweed, a plant with paralyzing properties which isn’t native to the area.
2) Her wrists and ankle bones are shattered (but again, no visible bruising), her lungs have been blackened as if she’s suffered 3rd degree burns, her tongue has been cut out, and many of her internal organs show massive scarring.
3) She’s missing a molar, but no worries! They find it in her stomach, wrapped in a cloth that contains a bunch of creepy symbols (which they also find on the inside of her skin, which is definitely where I keep my sigils too) and text that refers to Leviticus 20:27 and the year of the Salem Witch Trials.
4) Active brain cells. Like, her brain is totally functioning while her body is cold, drained of blood, and cut open. I’m no forensic pathologist or whatever but I’m pretty fucking sure that’s not how that works.
If all this wasn’t enough to make you go “NOPE” and get the fuck out, which our father and son autopsy team don’t, there’s also the fact that Jane Doe does not like anyone messing with her body. Every time they try to advance the autopsy weird shit happens, starting small with your usual creepy-old-timey-song-starts-playing-on-the-radio and escalating to full on apparitions, hallucinations, physical attacks, and just about everything else the paranormal can throw at you. For a corpse that literally never moves throughout the entire movie, not even for a cheesy jump-scare, this bitch can wreck shit up. And though I do feel bad about the dad dying, because Dad Stuff, I do very much enjoy watching this witch get revenge from the comfort of her morgue table.
The Plants – The Ruins
Google couldn’t decide if plants count as inanimate objects but there aren’t any plants on Earth that are as animate as the plants in The Ruins, so I’m including it either way. The Ruins is both a novel and movie about a group of American tourists who decide to visit a hidden and off-limits Mayan ruin while on vacation in Mexico (yes, they’re white, how’d you guess?). Despite being warned repeatedly by a local tribe, the group tramps all over the ruins and is then dismayed when this same tribe now won’t let them leave. Why not? Well… [SPOILER ALERT] the ruins are covered in a species of plant which is not only exceedingly dangerous, it can also grow on just about any surface if a few motes of its spore have touched it. The tourists are all covered in this spore and can’t be allowed to spread it into the jungle; if they do, the entire world could be doomed.
So what’s up with that, huh? They’re just plants, right? OHOHO. WRONG. These are the worst motherfucking plants around. Over the course of the book/movie we learn just how intelligent, dangerous, and downright cruel these leafy little fuckers can be. Because I love these plants so much, let’s break down some of their best features:
1) Acid sap: These plants may look harmless, but they’re actually filled with a highly acidic sap. They enjoy using this feature to melt the flesh of their victims, absorbing muscle and organs alike until only bones remain. Oh, and they rarely wait until you’re fully dead to do this. You just have to be immobile.
2) Spores and tendrils: Those spores I mentioned before? They get on everything and once they do, they start growing. And they grow FAST. In just a day or two you can have whole colonies of tiny baby plants growing on the tattered remains of your shirt or even in the crevices of your own skin. Oh, and did I mention the plants can also burrow into your flesh and grow equally well in there? They’re squirmy little fuckers, too, and move around when you try to cut them out.
3) Mimicry: The first shock twist in The Ruins comes as our doomed heroes are trying to find a cell phone that keeps ringing at the bottom of a mine shaft in the center of the ruins. They go through hell just to get down into the mine and after pushing through a dark, plant-filled side shaft they find the source of the ringing: a cracked, obviously dead cell phone clutched in the hands of a gruesome (and rather fresh) skeleton. Wait, if the phone’s not doing the ringing, then what is? You guessed it – THE PLANTS. These crafty little assholes can mimic any sound they hear. They use this ability to pit the tourists against each other and in the book they even mimic the sound of birds shrieking to warn the tribesmen that the tourists are trying to escape.
4) Planning: Even if somehow all of this seemed within the realm of possibility for a plant, their intelligence certainly isn’t. These plants are smart, if not smarter, than humans. They lay traps, disable survival supplies and tear down help messages, and have no problem playing the long game. For example, they selectively secrete their acidic sap so the rope the tourists use to drop into the mine shaft snaps, sending one man falling 30+ feet and resulting in him breaking his back. In addition to their uncanny mimicry, they also have the ability to learn human languages. As you can imagine, this causes all sorts of chaos as they mimic different people’s voices. The plants also aren’t above a little psychological warfare; they enjoy taunting the tourists with the ringing phone sound, even after its revealed the phone was a trap, and they torment a character who’s brother has also gone missing by saying, “Where is your brother? Your brother is here; your brother is dead,” in his native German.
This entry got kinda long but it’s because these plants are SO COOL and SO TERRIFYING and I love them. I have such a vivid memory of the first time I read the book and the moment I realized the plants were not only intelligent, but straight up evil – that’s some Goosebumps shit right there! Both the movie and book are definitely worth your time… as long as you have a strong stomach. This is horror at its bloodiest.
The Lasser Glass – Oculus
I should be honest with you: I came up with this entire article idea just so I could write about Oculus. Y’all, I LOVE Oculus. In the pantheon of inanimate objects that will fuck you up for fun and profit, Oculus reigns supreme. The movie starts with the reunion of a brother and sister who have been separated for years after the violent deaths of their parents. The sister remains convinced the true cause of their father’s murderous rampage was an antique mirror the family purchased several months before; her brother, however, has gone through extensive therapy and believes they both made up the mirror story as a way for their young minds to cope with the trauma of watching their father murder their mother. Well good news! They both get to test their theories because sis has hunted down the mirror, known as the Lasser Glass, and finagled it into the auction house where she works. Even better, the family home still sits empty, so she takes the mirror there to ensure the experiment’s repetition is exact. What could possibly go wrong?
Oculus does a good job of threading us along for a bit, with both siblings making good arguments for why their version of events is correct, but [SPOILER ALERT] when the healthy plants placed around the hungry mirror suddenly shrivel we know shit is about to go down. Sis is kind enough to enumerate the various grisly ends the Lasser Glass’ previous owners met, including their parents’, and it’s pretty damn clear the mirror likes to toy with its prey. While the mirror can’t physically run around to cause shenanigans (this isn’t Disney’s Beauty and the Beast), its power comes from twisting the perceived reality of those within its reach. With enough energy, gained by draining the lifeforce of living beings nearby, the Lasser Glass can manipulate all 5 human senses to do things like…
1) Trick you into starving or dehydrating yourself to death, along with messing with your perceptions of time in other ways.
2) Block your perception of pain so you don’t know you’re, say, smashing your own bones with a hammer, chewing through live power lines, or yanking out your teeth with pliers. Think you’re taking a stroll in the garden? WRONG. You’re walking into traffic.
3) Cause you to attack someone you love because you think they’re someone or something else. Oops, now your fiancé is dead. :(
4) Impersonate friends, family, or strangers, both in person and on the phone. How do you explain to your marriage counselor that you semi-cheated on your wife with a dead woman who came out of your ornate antique mirror?
5) Prevent you from damaging or otherwise disabling the mirror, or even just documenting the mirror’s abilities.
Let’s talk about that last point. One of the most chilling scenes in Oculus comes right after an intense argument between the siblings about whether or not the mirror is actually evil. This discussion takes place in another part of the house, away from the Lasser Glass. After it’s over, brother and sister head back to the room where the mirror has been hung. However, when they near the room they find the once healthy plants set out to measure the mirror’s reach have all been drained dry. Good thing sis was smart enough to set up an intricate surveillance system in the room holding the mirror to ensure any paranormal activity would be captured on tape! When they enter the room they see that the system has been completely disabled, the cameras turned to face one another. Aha! she thinks. We’ll just review the tapes to see what moved everything. Gonna catch this sneaky bitch in the act once and for all!
NOPE. The video shows the siblings dismantling the surveillance system themselves, including turning the cameras around, all while they have the argument they both could have sworn took place on the other side of the house. Surprise! The Lasser Glass ain’t messing around. This scene gives us our first true taste of the mirror’s strength; from this point onward neither the characters nor the viewer can ever be sure what’s real and what’s fabrication. Think you’re biting into a nice red apple? PSYCH, you just cut your mouth open biting into a lightbulb. OH WAIT, no, it was actually an apple all along. But if you had cut your mouth open, calling an ambulance wouldn’t be an option because the person on the other end of the phone is definitely not real. #SorryNotSorry
As far as we the viewer know, the Lasser Glass isn’t haunted by a dead orphan, cursed by an ancient mummy, or possessed by the Devil; it’s just a shiny bitch that loves fucking with people before it murders them. That’s possibly my favorite villain trope ever, which is probably why I love this movie so much. Like, it’s a pretty dark movie with a pretty bleak ending, but fuck if I don’t have such a good time watching that mirror terrorize people. The Lasser Glass has killed at least 11 other people on at least 8 other occasions in the past, ranging all the way back to 1754, and I would absolutely watch 8 more movies about those incidents. This trope just doesn’t get old!
So what do you think? Which of these way-too-animate inanimate horrors would you prefer to face? Which one gets the highest “NOPE” vote from you?
I had one of those “oh my god, DUH” epiphanies the other day. I was thinking about my increasing call toward deathwork and how that’s reflected in my life. In some ways it makes perfect sense: I was always that weird kid who was a little too obsessed with morbid historical events like the sinking of the Titanic and the cataclysmic fate of Pompeii; all of the gods I follow have ties to death or the underworld; and my own life has been touched by death in many ways. On the other hand, I have never felt any desire to go into forensics/criminology, mortuary sciences, end of life care, or other death-related career fields. I’m happy in emergency management and I have no plans to leave this field. That must mean I’m not really a death witch, I thought. If I was a legit death witch, I’d feel driven to become a mortician or a coroner or something… right?
Then it hit me. My passion career-wise is emergency management and in emergency management your top priority is always preservation of life. And isn’t preservation of life just the opposite side of the deathwork coin? Aha! Death itself is inevitable for all living creatures, true, but many deaths are entirely preventable given the right mitigation and response measures. Every day I do work that will hopefully save lives in the future when Washington state faces its next major tsunami. I do this work in honor of those who have faced similar fates, especially those who lost their lives in the 2004 Indian Ocean and 2011 Japanese tsunamis. Now I realize that by working to prevent unnecessary deaths, I’m filling a necessary role in the greater field of deathwork. It’s a small role, obviously, but I’ve never minded being one cog in a greater machine. What matters is that lives are saved.
When I told my wife about this stunning revelation, she predictably stared at me with her trademark blank expression and asked flatly, “Wait, this just occurred to you?”. Which, fair. It really was quite obvious but I’m known for not connecting the dots when it comes to what’s right in front of me. I just never made the connection that part of honoring death is preventing it when you can or that emergency management could play a significant role in this work. It’s proof to me that I’m on the right path and correctly interpreting the vague “feelings” that constitute my intuition. It also aligns with my most recent oracle reading which urged me to trust that the universe is working in unseen ways to guide me on my path. Point taken!
I’ve dreamed each night the Moon dead and dying in his lover’s arms (early, isn’t it, this solstice blood filling my mouth) and as I drive to work the Sun admits to me, “I would rather burn him until there is nothing left but ash than cling to the shell he leaves behind”. I can’t blame him, not when my own arms ache from clutching the Moon’s lifeless body so tightly, not when my fingers so vividly recall the sharp edges of his jaw as I cradled his head against my chest. Were we to trade places, the Sun and I, can I say I would choose differently?
You wax so poetic about the lives of cities, how hot pavement swells with each behemoth breath, subway arteries rushing with electric lifeblood; look at Paris and New York, Rome and Sao Paulo, oh what ancient beasts of civilization! Yet even the oldest cities are naught but animate skeletons, great slabs of concrete death laid out upon the graveyard of a once living land. You want real sentience? You want a consciousness so vast its leviathan architecture is incomprehensible to your human mayfly mind? Go to the country. Go to the wilds. Go to the green growing places where man has yet to fully intrude, where you can be surrounded by things which exist only for themselves and not your convenience or society’s continuity. Walk out into the fields at night; feel the weight of the darkness on your shoulders like a raptor descending, the cool serpentine scales of the silence as it brushes against you. Stare up at the sharp, distant stars which scorn to shine on the polluted corpse-cities and sense like all prey animals the true primordial awareness boring into you. Understand for the first time how very small and fragile and fleeting you are, here among the collective consciousness of a wilderness untamed. The city can kill you just as easily, of course, but when you die in the country they’ll never find your body.
Tanim and Daren are gods who balance and oppose each other – sun and moon, summer and winter, light and dark. Yet, while I am certain that Daren is the chosen form of Death, it hasn’t felt right to say that Tanim is therefore the form which Life has chosen to take. He doesn’t feel like Life. Life, at least in opposition to Death, is a thing of creation and fertility, generosity and gentleness, and Tanim doesn’t embody those qualities. While he isn’t Death, he carries a shard of its mercilessness with him, too much to ever associate him with something so bountiful as Life. So I’ve been struggling to figure out what he is, if not Life, and I’ve come up with a two-part answer that (at the moment at least) seems to solve the equation.
First, what if we remove the labels of Life and Death and look simply at the basic drivers of those forces. For Death it’s stagnation, leaving, the ceasing of the beating heart and the sudden stilling from animate to inanimate. Death is inert. For Life, then, it’s growth, survival, advancement, the strangling by one plant of another to ensure its own propagation or the taking of life by a predator to provide sustenance for its cubs. Life is active. So maybe the equation is less Life versus Death and more Desire versus Death, as Desire drives us forward and Death is the moment all desire ceases.
Second, what if the equation was never meant to be a balance of two opposing forces, but three? That would explain why I haven’t been able to solve it yet. So let’s say there’s a third element here that would balance out Desire and Death. What would it be? We have Desire driving purposeful action, and Death as the ceasing of all action, so… what about Chaos as driving action without purpose? What if the Nameless is supposed to form the third corner of this trinity, so to speak? That would explain her presence and her seeming connection with Tanim and Daren, even though she is decidedly not part of their story. She also offers a bit of a counterpoint to their cycle of life/death/rebirth which is perhaps exactly what they’ve been missing. With Chaos included, Death and Desire don’t have to encompass an entire universe.
So that’s where I am as of several sleepless nights in Spring 2021. I don’t think these three are gods so much as forces of the universe taking form to interact with me, but gods is the easiest term so that’s what I use. Daren is Death, Tanim is Desire, and the Nameless is Chaos. This is not at all intimidating or terrifying and I am totally fine.
The day we’re knocking on heaven’s door for Grey; Bara was downstairs, getting ready for his own battle. In so much extent, his situation is better, though the risk of the surgery is just as great. The guilt from failing to bring Grey back is still an overwhelming pressure. Though cats are said to have…
Holy shit, you do not feel good. You are dimly aware that one of the witches from the bar has followed you out, but you trudge stubbornly through the parking lot without acknowledging her. You’re fine, you just used too much magic, you’ll sleep off the drain and feel better in the morning. It begins to rain; you ignore it, letting the fat drops soak your tangled black hair. Did you park here? You can’t remember through the fever haze. Better to just walk home, it’s not that far (no one’s going to steal that junk heap anyway).
You let your combat boots lead the way down the familiar sidewalk, exhaustion dragging down your eyelids, the chill rain a distant irritation in the growing dark. But your steps are uneven no matter how carefully you try to place them and though you could swear you haven’t let your eyes close for more than an instant, suddenly you’re tripping over railroad ties and rusty nails, splashing through weeds and puddles instead of stepping on firm cement. You’ve wandered a bit off your path, haven’t you? And shit, you’re so fucking tired you could fall flat on your face right here and spend the night in the ditch for all you care. Then you do start to fall (whoops), but there are arms waiting to catch you…
You wake beneath blankets in a bed about a hundred times more comfortable than yours. The witch from the bar, the one who followed you (earlier tonight? yesterday?), sits beside you. Now that you’ve slept off the spell drain fever and can actually focus, you realize she’s all kinds of gorgeous and you’re briefly mortified for going so weak around her. She’s going to think you’re some newbie baby witch who can’t handle herself. But then she asks you how old you are (“very” you answer as the flames crackle in your ears and the smoke sears your lungs from across the centuries) and there’s wonder in her voice, not mockery, certainly not pity. She explains that they solved the issue of spell drain a while ago but that of course a witch your age wouldn’t know that. (You’re from a time when it wasn’t safe to trust other witches; you never really shook that habit, did you?)
But maybe for her you could. You get to talking as you recuperate through the morning and she tells you about her life. This home serves as her coven’s base; she teaches mortuary science at the local university, and many of her students are fellow witches who live here with her. They provide funerary services as well, to both the witch and non-witch communities. She’s funny and sweet and has a level head on her shoulders, and she doesn’t let you get away with any bullshit. Not that you attempt much, apart from some initial cagey answers and sarcasm drier than the flames of Hell, because you find the truth spilling from your lips more easily than it ever has. Magic? No. She’s just so damn genuine that she makes you want to be genuine as well. (Guess there’s a first time for everything.)
You realize as she talks that you want to be part of her world, of her life here in this busy house full of youthful noise and camaraderie. You want it more than you’ve wanted anything in all your centuries of existence – save one. And as your eyes meet, the words between you falling silent with anticipation, you cup her face in your hands and find that thing which you have most longed for (and never thought could be yours) on her sweet lips.
In one of the lesser stone halls, far from anything of significance, there is a wooden door. If you step within (it is forbidden, but not impossible when the guards are on their rounds) you’ll find a small room lined with warm, richly carved wood. On a side table sits a leather-bound book, its pages filled with cramped text and beautiful illustrations. You won’t have time to fully read the tale preserved in these pages but your eyes will be drawn to the art and the captivating woman who stares back at you. Her proud features are faintly aquatic, the angles of her face sharp and predatory like a deep sea creature’s, but her luminous eyes hold only a fathomless sorrow. Merrowyn, the text calls her. She is queen and goddess both to her people.
You won’t have much time before the guards catch you, so hurry through the next door. In this larger chamber you’ll find something that seems both museum and mausoleum. It is an exhibit of sorts, at any rate, though one not meant for your eyes. Here beneath glass lay the only remaining artifacts of the civilization that once ruled these lands. Paintings, pottery, fragments of scrolls; someone has even sculpted life-sized statues to capture the image of these extinct people forever. They are blue-skinned and amphibious like their goddess, some with gleaming iridescent scales or ridges of fins, little barnacles dotting their elders like liver spots. It’s clear they were a peaceful people; they dressed in flowing cloth, wove seashells and gems into their long locks, and none pictured seems to bear a weapon. From a speaker somewhere overhead their only remaining song plays, a mournful dirge moaned by a chorus of haunting voices in a language long dead. You can’t possibly know the words and yet they will make you want to weep anyway.
Having seen this, will you understand? Will you comprehend the bones on which your kingdom was built and the destiny they’ve kept from you all these years? You must because the guards will be coming, they will find you here in this forbidden place, your mind full of this forbidden knowledge, and you had better have a plan. Merrowyn’s blood runs in your veins, after all, and you are her people’s last hope.
I’ve carried the burden of extinction on my shoulders since I was a child, haunted by the sacred spirits of panthera uncia, tigris, and leo, by puma concolor and acinonyx jubatus, by the wailing specters of the burning Amazon and the melting Arctic. Even then I saw the irreversible trajectory of our folly and in the years since no amount of hope in mankind nor faith in divinity could shake that nihilistic certainty. I do not need cursed Cassandra’s terrible gift to know we crossed the point of no return long ago; we will never invent a technology capable of undoing the evils mankind has wrought, and certainly not in time to reverse the mass death we’ve set in motion. Even my childself, full of the dreams and promises of youth, understood the planetary genocide to which she’d bear witness in her lifetime.
Yet as I drown in grief I must remember my own words: turn to geology on your deathbed, it is the only science that can save you. When the ocean is clotted with orcinus orca’s ghosts and plastic shopping bags, it will still wear away continents and heave forth cataclysmic waves. When the mountains are littered with canis lupus corpses and abandoned solar panels, they will still cleave the sky and bury empty cities in eruptions of ash and mud. When every living thing is dead and we have finally committed the last of our species’ incomprehensible crimes, the earth will still remain. The planet will continue its endless cycles of upheaval and erosion, rupture and subduction, its titanic geologic metamorphosis, as if we had never been. Earth, at least, we cannot truly kill, no matter how hard we try.
Preserving the Memory of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami in Literature
March 11th, 2021 marks the 10th anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, one of the most devastating disasters in recorded human history. The magnitude 9.0 quake which struck off the eastern coast of Japan on March 11th, 2011 remains the 4th largest recorded earthquake in modern times; it not only caused widespread damage in Japan, but even shifted the axis of the Earth. The massive tsunami following minutes after the quake took the lives of over 10,000 people, triggered meltdowns at 3 reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, and left over $235 billion US dollars’ worth of destruction in its wake. After crossing the Pacific Ocean, its waves struck distant coasts hard enough to cause notable damage in the United States, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Chile, and the Galapagos Islands.
Yet the true human impact of such earth-shaking disasters is not captured only in the number of casualties or the cost of response and recovery; it is captured in the personal experiences and journeys of those who survived, and the memories they bear of those who did not. So too are the lessons they learned, which are priceless to those of us who live on or near vulnerable coastlines. For example, with the Cascadia Subduction Zone just off the North American West Coast, our “Big One” could look very similar to Japan’s and strike with just as little warning. As we say in the emergency preparedness world – it’s a matter of WHEN, not IF.
Therefore, in honor of the 10th anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, I would like to share some of my favorite written works on the subject. There can be no better way to honor those who lost their lives to this tragedy, nor to show our respect to the survivors who have worked so hard rebuilding their communities, than to take their stories and lessons to heart. Don’t let the subject matter dissuade you; we should not shy away from tragedy, because in tragedies like the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami we find poignant evidence of the beauty and strength of the human spirit.
Ghosts of the Tsunami is not a light read, yet it is absolutely worth the emotional journey. While Ghosts of the Tsunami touches on other aspects of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, its focus is the tragedy of Okawa Elementary and the 74 students lost while under their teachers’ care. Parry’s masterful narrative follows their grieving families through the immediate aftermath of the disaster and continues over the span of many years as some parents seek closure while others push for answers and accountability. The story of these families is a haunting reminder that disasters of this magnitude have the power to reshape the future of a community for generations – not only through quantifiable impacts like infrastructure and economic damage, but through the responsibility and emotional burden survivors carry with them.
Given the importance of poetry in Japanese culture, it is no surprise that there are several poetry collections about the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. So Happy to See Cherry Blossoms is distinctive for both the poignancy of its 17-syllable poems, all of which were written by Japanese citizens who personally experienced the disaster, and the amount of detail provided within. Along with both the Japanese and English translations of each poem, the reader is provided with the authors name, age, the number of tsunami-related fatalities in their hometown, and either backstory or direct quotes from the author explaining the inspiration for the piece. Interspersed between chapters is also commentary from the editor, distinguished haiku poet Mayuzumi Madoka, who travelled through the disaster zone in the months after to help survivors heal through poetry writing.
The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden is a beautifully illustrated children’s book based on the true story of “Kaze no Denwa” (the phone of the wind or wind phone), a disconnected phone booth built by 72-year-old garden designer Itaru Sasaki to help him process the death of a close relative. After the tsunami devastated his town, other survivors began using the phone booth to communicate with their own lost family and friends; many found this expression of grief gave them the closure they needed to begin healing. Tens of thousands of people have visited the phone booth since 2011, many even traveling from other countries to experience its unique form of therapy. The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden crafts a simple yet heart-wrenching version of this story that speaks equally to young readers and adults alike, reminding us that grief is part of the human experience and healing can be found in the unlikeliest places.
Beyond Me is a fiction novel-in-verse told from the point of view of a 5th grader named Maya. Maya experiences the March 11th earthquake from the relative safety of her inland town where she’s lucky to lose neither her family nor her home. Instead, she struggles with survivor’s guilt and the trauma brought on by constant unpredictable aftershocks, many of which are major earthquakes in their own right. This is where Beyond Me truly shines – through clever use of font formatting and a disjointed writing style, the reader experiences each earthquake in real-time with Maya. Dropped into Maya’s uncertain world where even the ground beneath your feet can’t be trusted, readers of any age will identify with her conflicted emotions. Likewise, I’m sure many readers will identify with the impulse to ignore one’s own problems because “others have it worse”, and hopefully will learn with Maya how to help both themselves and others in a healthy way.
In addition to these 4 books, below is a short list of additional recommendations. This is hardly an exhaustive list of the English-language literature available on the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, but I believe there is something of value available for everyone (and all ages!).
Your fingers like iron around his neck, your arm a statement of possession around his waist; ah, we return to tread familiar ground! You dance hip to hip beneath a moonless night sky and when the forest’s monsters come sprinting forth to take him down as prey they stop short at his outstretched hand. He reeks of you, of Death, and even these many-fanged and many-clawed beasts flee in fear of that primal entity so much older than they. You watch their retreat over his shoulder with a knife-blade smile, starlight limming the white skull painted on your pale face, and drag his mouth to yours.
In my dream, myself and two girls were led to a room where women in beautiful robes crafted elaborate porcelain masks. One of the women sat us at an empty table amid the group and served us tea in delicate china cups. Just one sip of tea sent us all into some sort of trance state and it suddenly seemed as if my face was submerged in a pool or bowl of bright water, yet I could still breathe easily.
I blinked and then before me in the water I saw the square of a great ancient city. Where the branching streets met in the center of the square stood what looked like a big fountain, though I couldn’t make out its shape. Then it moved and I realized it was a living statue in the shape of a lioness with white marble skin. The statue sat up, golden eyes blazing out of a lean face, and then on its head raised up a white serpent with matching gold eyes. I recognized Her immediately – my mother, the goddess Bast. Identical statues on either side which I had not noticed moved as well to mirror the pose of this one. Then another feline head, far larger, rose in the sky above the middle statue. Its eyes were as big and as bright as the sun; they were the sun. I knew then this was Bast, yes, but specifically the royal Bast, Bast as the Eye of Ra, the blazing sun, Queen of the Gods crowned in the sun disk and uraeus. I think I was crying from happiness, honored to receive a visit from Her in a dream.
The image faded and in the water I saw next the sweet, smiling face of a domestic cat. The little cat said something like, “You see but you don’t understand. Understand.” It was ‘understand’ with the implication of trust, though, like I can see the truth of divinity but I’m not letting myself trust enough to embrace it fully, or to trust that it’s meant for me, and that’s blocking my ability to fully grasp the gods’ messages. Something like that. I just felt so much love from Her, filling and overflowing every corner of my being. Then the trance state lifted and I was back in the room with the mask-makers. The other girls were too. We looked at each other in wordless wonder for what we each had separately experienced, tears streaming down our faces, then hugged each other tightly. The woman who had served us the tea smiled and escorted us out.
Be careful when promising your firstborn! Make sure you stipulate your first born human child, blood of your blood and flesh of your flesh. Otherwise the fae with whom you made the fateful arrangement might one day come for your first novel, your first painting, your first album. They are wily ones who find even the smallest loopholes in an agreement; if that contract isn’t airtight, it won’t matter if you never have a child in the traditional sense. On the day you complete your first and most precious creation, no matter what form it takes, the fae will come knocking. Will the bargain have been worth it when they leave with the product of your sweat, blood, and tears?
“Point,” Alice scowled as the practice blade darted through her defense and poked at an unpadded joint. She shifted her stance and went on the offense.
“Point,” The blade whipped around Ali’s attack to tap her unguarded throat. Blowing a sweaty strand of hair off her face with an impatient huff, she responded with a renewed assault, her own rapier a flashing blur in the sunlight.
“Point,” Mage grinned as she slipped around the whirling blade, snuck a quick jab through another gap in her opponent’s light armor, and jumped back before Ali could retaliate. “Jeeze,” she called, “did you line your armor with lead or something? Why’re you moving so damn slow?”
“I’m just tired,” Alice growled, trying to close the distance between them with each swing of her blade. “Some of us have been dreamwalking to aid the defenseless instead of lazing about the palace all day.” Mage only scoffed at this. “Oh darling,” she retorted, “you and I both know that’s not what this is about! You’ve been out of sorts for weeks. Something on your–” she dashed in, bopped Alice on the crown with her free hand, and dashed back out, “–mind?”
“No!” Ali rubbed her head and fixed Mage with a baleful glare. “I’m fine! Just drop it.”
“You suuuuure?” The elf danced in a circle around Alice, feinting with the practice blade just enough to force the other immortal off-balance from dodging. “‘Cause you seem pretty distracted lately! What is it, huh? What’s up? What’s going on?” Her sword moved in time with the rapid-fire questions. “Are you mad? Are you sad? Are you hangry? Are you–“
“I’m not mad!” The shout echoed through the training ground, followed by the clattering of Alice’s falling sword. It startled even Mage into stillness. Ali’s next words were a mutter through clenched teeth. “I’m jealous, okay? I’m jealous that you got to have your revenge. You spent years meting out your own brand of justice for what Tivius did. You broke the Lighthouse, for gods’ sake! I’m not saying I wish I had done it instead, or that I agree with what you did, but…” She shrugged. “At least you let all your wounds bleed themselves clean.”
“Ali…” The sound was more sigh than actual commentary. Mage set her rapier down with a bit more care than Alice had and closed the distance between them. Before she could offer any platitudes, snarky or otherwise, Alice held up a hand to stop her. “It’s true,” the woman continued. “I fought for Tivs’ legacy until the very end, even when I was utterly alone. And then we came here and all that’s suddenly in the past, we’re free, time to let it go, and I guess I never dealt with the emotions I’d buried during the war. Not the way you did.” She hugged her arms around her thin frame. “I think I tried to heal the wounds he left so quickly that I never bothered to drain them and now they’re…”
“Infected and full of puss?” Mage offered helpfully. The lump that had been building in Alice’s throat broke free in a burst of laughter. “Yeah,” she chuckled, “something like that.”
“Hmm…” A sly smile pulled up one corner of Mage’s mouth. “You know, normally I’d suggest tracking down the motherfucker who hurt you and exacting some very physical revenge as therapy, but in this circumstance that’s rather complicated. So…” The training ground blurred around them with a snap of Mage’s fingers. When their surroundings sharpened once more, Alice and Mage stood on the swaying deck of the Jolly Roger. Lightning jumped between storm clouds overhead and briefly illuminated the dark hulk of an island on the horizon.
“There we go!” Mage clapped Ali on the back and bent to retrieve her sword. “Why don’t you try reliving one of my battles? Blowing shit up can be very liberating.”
they cut your lover from your side, thinking to fell you once and for all, yet you rose again crowned in a blade of shadow, stripped of humanity and laid bare to your immortal intensity beneath, no longer the earthbound godling ruled by the fallibility of the flesh but Death Ascendant rimmed in wings like shards of ice, cold as the knife and hard as the fall
Warriors, why do you let your weapons fall? A battle lost is not yet a battle done! Does the outnumbered wolf bare her throat to await the killing bite? Never! She fights until her very last breath no matter how much blood she’s lost or how her vision darkens! Her snapping jaws are ever at the ready to take one final foe down with her. Pick up your blades, warriors; fight with every heartbeat left!
In my dream I drag the would-be rapist down the stairs of the porch by his hair, fingers sticky with blood. In my other hand I grip a hammer of pure silver. The girl follows behind, stifling her sobs behind her hands; unviolated, yet not uninjured. The music from the party inside vibrates the cool night air and throbs in time with my war-drum heartbeat.
“You fucking coward!” A crowd gathers as I throw the young man to the pavement. “You worm, you stain, how dare you!” My voice thunders like Sekhmet’s, a lioness battle cry of wrath, while my prey cowers below me. “You will touch no one. You will hurt no one ever again.” My pointing finger condemns him as sure as any blade. “I bind you. I take away your name. No one will know you. No one will welcome you or give you succor. No one will remember you. No one will mourn you.”
Somewhere in the crowd, the woman I love watches. The silver hammer gleams in the moonlight as I raise it high. “You will wander unloved and unwanted the rest of your days, scorned by all,” I swear, “and when you die the darkness will devour your rotten heart and you will cease to exist.”
I thought Tsunami would be a feral thing, silt between her teeth and gasoline rainbow hair tangled with fishing nets, distorted siren wail vomiting toxic black sludge. She’s frenetic, ravenous, a cataclysmic Charybdis, right? But Tsunami was scoured clean when I met him, a china-white skeleton in black robes like a Buddhist monk’s. Such silence in the sockets of that rictus face, such stillness, such unwarranted serenity! We look the same beneath, he told me, and I saw that I too had rotted down to fragile paper crane bones. The revelation did not disturb me; it was comforting to be done with the meat and its attendant miseries. We did indeed look identical, Tsunami and I. Just two skeletons clad in black, smiling through eternity.
in my dreams I slit the throats of abusive fathers my nails sharp as harpy talons I drag rapists into the streets by their hair smash their skulls with a silver hammer I ride laughing through dark woods on the back of a great goat I fear nothing and no one in my dreams
Forgive my lack of manners, I just /devour/ poetry can never seem to let it breathe, take a sip roll the vintage along my pallet and discern dimensions of linguistic terroir. I am just so /parched/ you see I swig straight from the bottle like a boor each syllable sweet as honeyed wine divine versification rejuvenation! But then the last stanza’s been swallowed metaphors drying on my tongue and I’m a desert /desperate/ for a drop pining for poetry’s reprieve once more.