In the wake of wind and waves, only grief remains. Old debts and grudges washed away with the bodies and now a community baptized by storm surge must unite in the aftermath or fall apart. Those who cling to dreams of revenge bloody their fists on cinder blocks while the rest of the survivors re-knit the bonds of kinship with ropes of braided tears. In basements and parking garages the film of mud remembers the wails of those trapped by rising floodwaters, but slowly brooms and mops reclaim what the hurricane would make a cemetery.
A list of 9 things you think about at 18 and 1 you don’t
- if you really want to be an English major
- why you signed up for an 8 AM class
- if you can write a paper in one night
- how to tell if a beta fish is happy
- what you’re going to be for Halloween
- if Pop Tarts count as a balanced breakfast
- how to tell if a beta fish loves you
- whether your writing is actually any good
- if you should finally get your ears pierced
- what songs you want played at your father’s funeral
My astral self wanders as I sleep. I find myself floating above a gathering of five women who sit cross-legged on the floor, their placing like the five points on a pentacle. A pendulum hovers beneath my outstretched left hand, bobbing as if on a string; I have to concentrate to keep it from falling but the focus drains my energy. I look back down to the group beneath me and know instinctively, in the way of dreams, that they are a coven of death witches. Like me.
“How are we, death witches?” I ask, the unspoken half of my question understood by all: how are we, given the shit going on in the world right now?
“How are you?” One of the witches asks in what sounds like a thick Caribbean accent as she looks up to my suspended spirit. I release a weary sigh and sink to a sitting position beside her. My left hand comes to rest on a large chunk of quartz. “Struggling with faith,” I admit. This witch and the one to her left are both African. Their dark skin is covered in swirling gray patterns of painted clay and their long locs clatter and glint with beads, charms, and precious stones. They’re both beautiful, commanding and regal; I wonder if they’re sisters, perhaps even twins.
“I can see that,” the first replies with a kind smile. “But your guides have not left you. They are quiet right now because they are off gathering sweet intel.” She winks conspiratorially. “If you were listening to juicy gossip you would not want someone blabbering in your other ear, distracting you, would you?”
“That makes sense, knowing them…” I murmur, thinking of Tanim and Daren yet also the ancestor spirits who have seemed more distant lately. The African witch begins to speak again but then another witch, the one sitting next to her sister and thus directly across from me, abruptly lurches over the circle toward me. One bony hand darts out from the wool cloak which shrouds her form, gripping my face tightly. I glimpse her hooded face briefly as she looms over me; she’s very old, a crone whose dark eyes stare into mine from a thin, severe face.
And then all I can feel is the witch’s presence in my mind as she divines my soul, rifling through my past, present, and future as if they’re laid out on a table before her. My memories flutter like a deck of cards under her astral fingers, a familiar sensation made strangely invasive. As she examines me, I catch glimpses into her mind of the reading she will give me, potential words or ‘cards’ whispering at the edges of my hearing: The Fool; The Garden; The Wanderer; The Rose; The Temple. I repeat them in my mind so as not to forget but they go by too quickly – before I can be sure of the list or the crone can deliver her reading, I wake up.
on the eve of fifteen years I lay in bed fearing my father is passing out of memory and into legend as the childhood friends who grew up with him fade from my life, the last pets who lived with him all gone themselves these past five years, old family friends scattered across the country, now almost everyone in my life knows him only in the stories I share, in pictures on Facebook every birthday and death anniversary, and as I lay here picking open old wounds both real and metaphorical I know deep in my gut he’s become part of the immutable past, a thing from my childhood like stuffed toys and crayons or the sweets I can no longer eat yet reminisce over fondly, tonight I lay crying in a bedroom in a house he never stepped foot in and realize my father is immortalized more now in the traditions I use to honor his memory than the shared experiences of the things themselves and most days that’s sufficient, it really is, my wife talks about him like she knows him and most days it feels like she does but then this day, this awful day, rolls around and I remember she never knew him, none of them did, because he wasn’t at my college graduation or my wedding because he is dead, he is dead, he is dead and the way he lives on is that of all myths: through written word and oral tradition, those transient, untrustworthy things, and not even the greatest storytellers in history could truly capture what it felt like to be hugged by him, no, memory and mythology can’t replace a person’s physical presence one bit
Queer Joy (is)
defiance of fate and fortitude against death
a communion with those who came before
a covenant with those who come after
a consecration of those who fight and fall beside us
Hail to the ancestral dead!
Hail to those ancestors with whom I share blood
and to whom I am bound by love.
Hail to those ancestors with whom I share identity and experience:
queer, pagan, witch, neurodivergent,
all of you ostracized for who and what you were.
May you find joy in the life your descendant lives;
may your hopes come to fruition in me
and your memory be honored by my actions.
Hail to the ancestral dead!
There are many kinds of Beloved Dead. There are our ancestors with whom we share blood; those we are connected to by the branching tree of life that stretches back hundreds of thousands of years. There are the ancestors with whom we share identity; spirits who shared our beliefs, our genders and orientations, who lived and struggled because of who they were or how their bodies operated just as we do today. Blood binds us to some Beloved Dead and shared experience, shared worldviews, to others.
There are the place spirits, those who share space with you and with whom you must have a relationship of mutual respect. They may be past tenants of your home or the land on which it sits; animal, insect, and nature spirits who died there or who still live there; or wandering spirits who have come to stay for a time. Proximity ties us to place spirits, as well as our duty to honor the land and home we share with them. We are not the first to live in a location and we should not treat it as solely ours.
And there are the dead taken too soon. They are the disaster dead, the war dead, the dead stolen from us by police brutality, capitalism, climate change, by greed and hubris and hatred. They are often the faceless dead, frequently nameless, their numbers so vast we struggle to keep our heads above the sucking waters of their grief. We are indebted to their past so that their existence may never be forgotten, and burdened by their lost futures so that we may prevent others from sharing their fate.
The Beloved Dead take many forms: human and nonhuman, animal and plant, single and collective. They are strangers and friends, unknowable and familiar, yet all are equally dear. All are equally worthy of remembrance and honor.
An Unexpected Meeting
A week or two ago I took advantage of an offer from Aleja of Serendipities to test a new cartomancy spread intended to facilitate communication between clients and the dead. I’ve had an altar to the Beloved Dead for about six months now, and I invite many kinds of benevolent dead to take part in my offerings, so I was eager to see who or what might initiate contact. While I’m good at connecting with gods, my experience with spirits, human or otherwise, is really low.
The entity who reached out identified herself through a card called “Celebration” (Aleja was using the Vintage Wisdom oracle deck, which is just lovely) and agreed this moniker can be used for her until her true name is revealed. Through a combination of cartomancy and the use of a yes/no coin Aleja was able to determine that Celebration is not a blood ancestor of mine but a queer ancestor! I was super excited to hear this because when I reach out to ancestors I always include those “with whom I share identity” (versus blood) and specifically call out to queer, pagan, witch, and chronically ill/mentally ill spirits. Having one reach back and identify themselves as an ancestor provided validation I hadn’t realized I craved; now I know my words are being heard and are considered respectful enough to be reciprocated.
Celebration further indicated that she is proud of the work I’ve been doing to release things that no longer work for me and to stay true to myself. She can also help me with surrendering to the flow of things (something I’m very bad at) to reduce obstacles and minor mishaps in my life. She wants to spend more time with me, and one way I can connect better with her is by standing in my power. When asked if there was anything else she wanted to say, she said we have a lot in common and that’s how she found me – the card she used for this was called “kindred spirits”.
I asked a few follow-up questions but didn’t want to press too much, as it seemed like the connection was a little tenuous. Aleja shared that Celebration’s energy was somewhat femme, appearance is important to her, and that she’s a bit like a wine aunt who’s secretly a mother hen. The connection wasn’t strong enough to get a great visual image, but Celebration is perhaps from the late 60s or early 70s. (I’ll add a note here that I thought I got a feeling that she might be African or African American but this could just be because her vibe reminded me of Hathor, so I’m taking that with a big grain of salt for now.)
Moving forward, I’m going to try connecting with Celebration using my own oracle deck. She seems hesitant about divination and my particular oracle deck is probably easier to understand than a tarot deck. I’m also going to use a yes/no coin and will maybe try a pendulum, though I’ve never had luck with those myself. Hopefully between offerings and some quality time, she and I will be able to find a communication method that works for her.
[ I found Aleja’s reading to be extremely informative, as have some past readings she’s done for me, so I highly recommend her services! ]
you who were judged and found wanting
for whom and how you loved
for what you believed and why
I claim you as my own
you who were cast out unfairly
for the state of your body or how you embraced it
for refusing to keep silent or to yield your power
I claim you as my own
you who were forgotten by history
for not fitting your oppressors’ narrative
for being an inconvenient and incontrovertible truth
I claim you as my own
I dream about you often enough now that my heart lives in a perpetual state of confusion, convinced this surreal oroboros of childhood homes and reinvented memories is somehow the correct reality until the moment I wake and the narrative fragments. Yet even fifteen years later I still haven’t the nerve to scold my heart too sternly for its naivety; what if by breaking it just that much more it loses the ability to dream of you at all?
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?)
Hail to the Beloved Dead!
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
Hail to the Beloved Dead!