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
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.
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?
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.
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.
I think perhaps
I am as much a woman as
Scylla with her many serpent heads
Charybdis with her churning waters
Ammit with her long crocodile jaws
all bloody from chewing rotten hearts
which is to say
My love for you is a dead weight I have dragged behind me for years now, a rotting corpse I somehow convinced myself I could still revive if I just kept searching this desert for the mythical spring from which flows the water of regeneration. I just needed more time, I told myself, always just a little more time, a few more steps, another chance for redemption and reunion. Yet I have stumbled across this desert for years and still I have nothing to show for my pains but a heart nearly as desiccated as yours and no hope, no hope left at all. I do not even hallucinate your touch or your voice in my weakest moments; I have no strength to pretend you might show me such mercy. Even your corpse contrives to ever avoid my eyes.
If there is an oasis here in this wasteland, it is the wind which gently brushes my cheek and whispers with my Mother’s voice, “You owe Them nothing.” And I am incapable of feeling sorrow anymore, for you or myself, but I might be ready to feel pride. And anger.
Here’s the thing. I can’t tell if I like the way the person in the mirror is starting to look because (she? they? ooh let’s not touch that right now) what I see more closely fits what I imagine for myself, or if it’s because it doesn’t. Am I getting closer to the person I really am or am I pushing myself farther away? Is this finding myself or just disassociation? And you might say it doesn’t matter as long as it feels right or as long as it makes me happy, but I think it really does because what if I get so far down the wrong path that I can’t find my way back? I get confused, you know, and this wretched excuse for a flesh prison contains multitudes. I might lose track. I might lose control. I might slip beneath the dark water and someone else might break the surface in my place. And I might like that, it might make me happy, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best or right thing to do. It’s just not that simple, you know? I can’t just claim with confidence an identity that touches down to the core of not only what I am, but who. Who? Like I even fucking know anymore. All of this, all of me, balances on a knife edge. Hell, a lot of fucking knife edges. Every time I move I slice myself open and I can’t say if the blood I bleed is always red. I just don’t know. I yearned for so long to become those who I was not, to be a vessel worthy of their contents… How do I know my subconscious isn’t just self-fulfilling that prophecy? Isn’t this all terribly convenient? So no, “you just know” really isn’t a useful answer for me because I CAN’T. I can’t bank on the impartiality of my senses because they’ve been hijacked before; I can’t assume purity for my motives because what if they’re not even mine? I am filled with lies and false memories. I am entire sagas of untruths. I must question everything to even know if I’m asking the questions for myself or someone else.
To those ancestors with whom I share blood, be welcome here To those ancestors with whom I share identity, be welcome here To those society cast out unfairly, be welcome here Spirits who share this land with me, be welcome here
May this offering give you strength May this sacred space bring you peace May you find here what you most need And may I be of help in your journey
You are not forgotten; I will remember you You are not unloved; I will mourn you You are not unclaimed; I will honor you
I understand now. It was never a city – it was your impact crater. You fell so far and hit with such force that shards like skyscrapers erupted all around you, a wasteland of steel and glass spires. He is always finding you broken and bleeding the red blood of mortality in that alley because you fell first, wingless and wounded, and he followed after. You are always dying in his arms because this place is stuck in an endless loop of the falling, the seeking, the finding, the parting. Is this your punishment? Your purgatory? Or your paradise? I suppose it no longer matters after so many millennia.
Oh Starry Cow, your beauty fills the sky!
At dawn flowers open toward your radiant smile
Daisies, poppies, sunflowers, roses
At dusk flowers reach up to your starlit eyes
Jasmine, lilies, orchids, water lilies
And all through the day, all through the night
We your children dance beneath your benevolent gaze
Oh Golden One, your beauty fills the sky!
O trickster! O thief!
Return to me my heart Given under falsehood! This least valued of your treasures Forgotten and unremarkable What profit can it bring you? Return it that I might lock it away And never err again in offering!
The Sun baptizes me in the red lake of his heart, not a lake of fire but blood as bright and hot as molten metal, or perhaps he means to drown me for he holds me under as I scream and thrash, and only after an eternity of agony does he lift me up in his arms (am I dead? am I reborn?) while beside him the Moon casts his indifferent gaze on my charred body and observes, They burn up so quickly.
You can’t publicly mourn anymore. Not really. You can’t claw at your skin or tear out your hair. You can’t howl and beat your breast. Polite society demands we tame our grief into dry-eyed stoicism or silent, stately tears. Lacking an outlet, I settle for picking at scabs that never heal and pulling out my eyebrows until my fingers ache, but it’s never enough. They call it dermatillomania and trichotillomania because if you do this to yourself there must be something clinically wrong with your mind. I think a more accurate term, if one is so necessary, would be obsessive compulsive mourning. Can we be blamed, though, given the state of the world? We’re drowning in grief and our bodies long for the catharsis of mindless animal exertion. Some sorrow you can only release in screams so loud they leave you voiceless. Some rage you can only set free by clawing it out of your flesh with your own fingernails. Some mourning only heals when you are surrounded by others who wail and rend with you. There’s solace to be found in the ugly, violent mourning of our ancestors – but instead we cage the misery inside ourselves, where it rots us slowly from within.
Your halls are sandstone monoliths
Your garlands flowering succulents.
Rattlesnakes shake their sistra tails in joy
Coyotes sing your praises to the moon. Awoo, they cry, great is our Lord the Divine Jackal! Awoo, they carol, great is our Lord the Giver of Life!