Choosing which fork in the river to follow has never challenged me. I know who and what I am meant to be, what I am meant to do, where I am meant to go. I do not fear the bends and loops in the river’s path, nor even the rapids and little waterfalls. What challenges me are the artificial obstacles placed in the river: the boulders, the dams, the pollution and infrastructure poisoning the river’s clear waters and turning its natural course into a dangerous maze. How can I make choices based on what is best for me when the future is so uncertain? How can my heart run wild along its course if the way is so often barred? Not even our souls remain untouched wildland when society is so steeped in cruelty and greed.
Lungs full of wildfire smoke, I toss and turn in a bed of microplastics and dream of stream-filled glades paved over decades before I was born. I see the land that raised me as it must have been five hundred years ago, untouched by manifest destiny’s bulldozers, a version of that beloved place so long dead we have lost even the memory of its ghosts. I wonder: How do we guide the living through the death of everything they have ever known? How do we prepare ourselves to lose all we have loved and fought for?
And then She is screaming with the voices of ten thousand extinct creatures, WHAT WILL IT TAKE FOR YOU TO CHOOSE LIFE? Her howling reverberates through my bones as I watch apocalypse spread across the globe like wildfire, scouring land and sea to bare rock. NO MORE CHANCES, She rages, and the planet fissures open along seismic scars. NO MORE MERCY, She wails, and whole continents of crust break apart like a cracked egg to spill Earth’s molten core amongst the stars. NO MORE, Gaia seethes. No more greed. No more cruelty. No more Mother Nature balancing our impact with her adaptability. It ends here.
After, staring into the midnight dark, I think: Could I be a death doula to a dying planet?
Incorporeality will be the death of me. I have submerged myself in your world as much as I can – for twenty-one years, for seven thousand, six hundred, and seventy days, for tens of thousands of hours – but it is never enough. No matter how long I drown myself in your most potent memories, how deep I dive into your most painful emotions, somehow I always find myself back at the surface once more. No matter how vividly I can imagine you, it is not the same as truly standing in the room with you. To cup your face in my hands, to watch the grief and anger war in your eyes, to hear the tremble in your voice. Tens of thousands of hours and yet I have never touched you. Two thirds of my life and yet I cannot numb myself to the agony of empty arms and ringing silence. My imagination is powerful but even it cannot replace the way your hands grip hard enough to leave bruises and knowing I will never experience that sensation is unbearable. Yet here I am, twenty-one years later, bearing it because there is no alternative.
The red grains of sand remember a time when they were still cliffs being worn slowly away by the winding river, and because the rivers are hers so the sands are hers. The monoliths remember a time when the waves of a vast inland sea gently deposited the rich sediments from which they were born, and because the seas are hers so the monoliths are hers. There are no wolves here but there are bony coyotes with their lolling tongues and clever grins, and so the coyotes are hers. There are no crows here but there are turkey vultures hunched in their fine black drapery and drifting high on invisible thermals, and so the turkey vultures are hers. This land is not the ancestral home of her people but her children are here and so she is as well: in the golden moon hanging low over dry creek beds, in the coiled curves of the waiting serpent, in the beautiful cacti with their long, deadly spines. And she is in the first rains of autumn which bring vital nourishment and a reprieve, however brief, from the daily struggle to survive.
In my dream I stand at the edge of a tall cliff overlooking a vast desert, the waves of golden dunes fading on the horizon into darkness as if this desert marks the edge of existence. Two falcons take wing into the cloudless blue sky before me, followed by two more, then a dozen, a hundred, the beating of their wings filling the sky. One passes by wearing the double crown of Egypt – Horus, Lord of the Sky. Behind the flock of falcons follows a massive shallow-bottomed vessel shining with gold and jewels. This must be the Mandjet, the “Boat of Millions of Years” Ra uses to travel across the sky during the day. On the solar barque’s long deck I see an array of kemetic gods, including Hathor, Ra himself, and Set, all hundreds of feet tall and limned in sacred light. I search for my mother among them but don’t see her.
“We are living gods,” an accented voice I am beginning to know well explains over my shoulder. “We die fighting.” I turn to see Bast standing behind me, a proud smile tilting up her full lips and dancing in her dark eyes. As she continues to speak I look back to where the grand procession moves from east to west across the cerulean sky, banners waving in the breeze of its passing, a more glorious sight than any I have seen in dreaming or waking. When it reaches the far horizon and Ra proceeds into the underworld for the night, the gods will battle against chaos to ensure the sun rises on another day. Every night they fight so we might see the morning and have done so since the world was first created. My mother is right; these are the actions of living, breathing gods, not myths from an ancient and defunct religion.
June finds us, surprise surprise, back in your palatial living room with its vaulted ceilings and grand windows and the thick white carpet on which you kneel amidst a rose garden of blood stains, his crumpled body still warm in your arms, while I stand to the side and observe the scene in silence, alert to any clues which might reveal the method you used this time, maybe even the string of choices and repercussions which lead to this moment, but all I can think about is how many times we’ve been here, how many years now I’ve cataloged the details of his death first on clay and papyrus, then parchment and computer like a good scribe while you weep at my feet and I know we have both grown so weary of this passion play yet here we are again, again, again, repeating the same old lines, carrying out the same old gestures, not a single solution between us to change the ending, so for once can you just skip the mystery and suspense and show me the knife?
Some rush into revenge, eager to mete out penance and collect their triumph, yet it’s important to learn all you can about your enemy first. You must observe his habits and patterns closely, not just to discover hidden flaws in his defenses but to best craft the manner of your vengeance. Though bloodshed has its merits, of course, not all retribution need be taken through steel and storm with death as the end goal. After all, the dead cannot suffer. The dead cannot experience shame or guilt or fear. Once you kill someone he is beyond the reach of your machinations. Why set him free so quickly?
No, once you have observed your enemy long enough you may come to realize that the best punishment is to simply leave him to his own devices. You may recognize what a lonely, craven worm he truly is, someone for whom death is a mercy or a martyrdom. Your grand efforts of elaborate revenge are quite frankly wasted on such a pathetic creature. All you really need to do is sit back and watch as he damns himself with his own choices over and over again, his remaining stock of allies dwindling until he is utterly alone. And that is how you leave your enemy – to waste his final years in the gutter, impotent and bitter, with no one to feed his lies or sorrows. There may be less blood that way but the prolonged suffering is well worth the trade-off, I assure you.
Anger is a gift, Inanna tells me. It keeps you moving when you want to give up. It keeps you fighting on the battlefield. It keeps you demanding better for yourself when everyone tells you to accept their scraps. Her rep lips peel back in a sneer to show sharp white canines. Your anger is a threat to them; that is why they try to take it from you. They trick you into feeling ashamed of it, or guilty for it. They call you selfish, arrogant, petulant. They dismiss you as a child and condemn you as a monster. I imagine the men who slandered Her priestesses as harlots, who twisted Her myths, who destroyed Her temples and named Her Whore of Babylon. Yet still Inanna persists, over five thousand years later, as powerful today as She was when She ruled an entire civilization. They will spout any lie to rob you of your righteous anger, She says, pressing one pointed nail to my chest, because they know they will fall before it like wheat before a scythe. Hold tight to your anger, child. Do not let it be taken from you, or turned back on you, or redirected to another more vulnerable. Your enemies are cowards who prefer the deceit of silver tongues to the honesty of steel swords. Believe nothing they say. Trust your anger to guide you rightly. Then She smiles, a grin full of hunger and destruction. And trust mine.
heart still beats ‘neath the floorboards of a house I can’t return to, twenty years and more straining in the damp glacial till that nurtured a blackberry youth, and every night my spirit leaps free my slumbering body to fly ‘cross moonlit miles and reunite like no time at all has passed, what foolish business!, and thus I wake each morning curled ‘round that house-shaped cavity wishing I could say goodbye, wishing I could let that place go, wishing I could move on from a past that keeps moving farther on from me with every passing year
in a world of darkness you were a pinpoint of light
a pulsing star calling the lost and lonely
[ I am here… come find me…]
yet you were no beacon bravely blazing
merely an anglerfish lighthouse laying in wait
At night I run my tongue over my teeth, the only bones I can touch, comforting myself that I am still a skeleton beneath all this soft meat. If I could I would carve away chunks of marbled fat and muscle to release the sexless, genderless framework within. How freeing to do away with all that weight! What a relief to discard all those features of the flesh which identify and define us! No breasts to enforce gender; no skin to determine privilege; no hair to cut, nails to trim, genitals to clothe, no daily burden of presentation at all. Just empty sockets and hard white lines and the eternal, effortless rictus grin. Pure calcium anonymity. I run my tongue over the sharp edges and smooth curves of my teeth and realize that although I do not love my body, perhaps I could love the skeleton buried inside. It did not choose the suffocating mountain of organs and expectations heaped upon it any more than I did. We are in this together, both physically and metaphorically – we should be allies. I run my tongue over my teeth and think, Take care of me and I’ll take care of you, bones. The flesh won’t last forever, but you and I will.
Acute pain is a problem of the present but chronic pain is a problem of the future. If I go to this event, will the length of time give me a headache? Or the human interaction? The bad weather? What about the lack of accessible bathrooms or the food provided, will it give me a stomach ache? Will the physical exertion trigger my carpal tunnel syndrome? Will I be in so much pain that I want to go home early but can’t? And if so, will the pain be worth it or will I be too miserable to appreciate the experience? If I bail, though, will everyone be mad at me? Will I be a disappointment? Every future event and upcoming activity triggers the anxiety loop again: fear shame guilt, fear shame guilt, fear shame guilt, an endless repetition of dread for the future. And what does the anxiety even solve? Does the prevention of future pain guarantee an end to the pain? Unlikely. Does it even guarantee a lack of pain on the day of the missed event? Of course not. So what’s the point? Fear shame guilt. Fear shame guilt. Fear shame guilt. It solves nothing but you can’t break free.
At night I’m visited by the three Ghosts of Friendship. The Ghost of Friendship Past arrives first in a form I know well, a friend whose absence remains an unhealed wound which aches most on long, textless weekends. Friendship Past brings me bittersweet dreams where we are best friends once more, no awkwardness or years of unexplained silences between us to dampen the laughter. I wake wondering what happened, why and where it all went wrong. Was I found lacking in some way?
The Ghost of Friendship Present shows up next, cycling through the guises of current friends who seem to be slipping through my clenched hands like fine sand. They spirit me from my bed to deliver us to parties where I’m not acknowledged, game nights where my presence is needed only to fill in for someone absent, group events where I am at best the tolerated tag-along. I wake angry at slights that never actually happened.
Finally the Ghost of Friendship Future appears, taking the form of someone who doesn’t even exist. It’s a face I know well, though; I’ve been watching the show for months, start to finish and back again, out of jealousy or perhaps just yearning. I confide in him that I wish his study group could be my friends as well; I don’t have a gang of my own anymore and I fear I never will again. Maybe fictional friend groups are all my future holds.
Unlike Scrooge, when I wake from this third and final visitation to a new dawn I do so without any real lessons imparted, no resolutions burning in my chest. Either the Ghosts of Friendship aren’t interested in redemption arcs or I’m not worth the effort. When they return the next night it’s just more of the same and I’m left to face the morning weighted Marley-style by chains I won’t acknowledge.
I was a child who hated dresses yet wore my tangled hair so long it reached the base of my back. I performed in ballet recitals yet despised the makeup they required be plastered on my face. I loved glitter and stuffed animals and motorcycles and wooden swords. I was a princess, but I was one who could rescue herself.
I did not call myself a tomboy, though. The word fit awkwardly in my mouth even then, much like choir dresses and pink tights fit awkwardly on my chubby form. It’s only in adulthood that I understand why I hesitated to claim the label: tomboy implied girl. To be a tomboy meant to be a girl who liked boy things, who was unlike ‘normal’ girls but who still, beneath the mud and the bruises, was a girl. And I was not a girl.
I was frozen pond water. Freshly mown grass. Coyotes howling in the night. I was wild blackberries and ripe apples and library books, wood smoke and Play-Doh and agates. I was thousands of memories and sensations squashed into the jelly bean-shaped body of a human child. They might have been consolidated under a given name and assigned gender but they never truly united into one concept. Yet what child worries about such things when they’re tromping through wetlands or howling at the moon?
I’ve since shed the last of the dresses and most of my hair, and with them all the labels I once accepted (albeit with resignation) as my default. Replacing them with nothing has left me freer than since I was that blissfully unaware child. Besides, I am still her, still mushrooms and noisy crows and pressed pennies; we just understand us better now.
My eating disorder can’t hook me through conventional methods so instead it tries to get me through you. I don’t care about having a beach ready body but the possibility of getting this useless meatsuit even the least bit closer to looking like yours? Of being an adequate-enough vessel that you might consider inhabiting me, even if only for a moment, for an hour? Oh, that’s tempting. That’s an offer I find hard to refuse. My logical brain knows such a goal is impossible for my body – it will never be good enough for you, no matter how I cut and carve it down – but the disorder whispers from where it’s chained in the depths of my subconscious that maybe, just maybe, we can make it happen together. We should at least give it a shot, it purrs to me. Right?
I’m in that zone of total exhaustion and no fucks left to give, moon and planets dragging on my subconscious, I feel the slipping the fading the floating out of time and body that untethering of action from consequence that leaves me bold and dizzy swaying on the threshold yelling, Where are you, huh? Why the hiding? Why the silence? That’s not like you, boys, come on now! I’m calling Loki, Satan, Lucifer, Set, I’m calling Death and Desire, the fallen, the forgotten, I’m calling you up, I’m calling you out, Where are you? Come fucking get me, I’m fucking ready, you don’t scare me! and I know it’s a bad idea, you’ve burned me before for boldness, but I’ve always been that person who needs to touch something hot just to know what it feels like, I just gotta know for myself exactly how it’ll hurt and every time you burn me I learn something new from the pain and it makes all the scars worthwhile.
No exes in my graveyard, instead I’m dogged by the ghosts of friendships abandoned, bodies left to rot where they fell in the undergrowth because neither of us bothered to give them a proper burial (can’t honestly say I even checked for a pulse before I ran, fearful of either outcome) and while watching yet another love begin its slow anemic decline I feel your specter sit beside me and I rest my head on her shoulder like it’s the most natural thing in the world.
Look, I’m just the pilot; I don’t have any control over what meatsuit I was assigned. I didn’t get to pick the make or model or color or any of that, I just operate the damn thing. It’s a machine, you know? And this one came off the factory floor full of design flaws and defects so it requires even more work than some others to keep it functioning. I try my best to maintain all the parts, I even call in a mechanic when a task’s above my skill level, but I didn’t choose this 24/7 job and I’m really not that attached to it. The meatsuit doesn’t define me. I don’t identify with any of its individual components or the composite whole. I’m the operator, separate from that which is operated. Try to remember that when you look at me; I’m stuck inside this unit but that doesn’t mean you should judge me by its appearance. After all, what am I supposed to do – trade it in for a new one?
Of course this body has never felt right – not because my gender identity clashes with its appearance, though, but because my body has never been a refuge. How could I recognize the discomfort of dysphoria when pain, anxiety, and exhaustion dominate my senses? How could I discern whether this disconnect between spirit and flesh is caused by a lack of gender or by all these years spent trapped in chronic illness? When it comes down to it, I’m not sure I’ll ever know whether I’m unhappy in my body because it looks “female” or because it has only ever been a burden requiring constant care. I can change my appearance all I want, slick back my short hair, cover my skin in tattoos, but that won’t stop the migraines or the stomach aches or the OCD. Even the clothing I wear is always half aesthetic and half will I be too warm in this or too cold, will it make me sweat too much and cause a panic attack, will this hat keep me from picking my scalp bloody or will it give me a headache instead? It’s always something; between the faulty wiring in my brain and all the other aching, breaking bits, I don’t really have tools sensitive enough to scan for undercurrents of dysphoria. My body’s never been a home and maybe it never will be, no matter what colors I paint the outside or what interior walls I tear down.
I am above all things the scribe. That is my gender, my religion, my morality and creed. See these? They are the scribe’s bones. And these? The scribe’s breasts. Cut open my organs and watch them bleed ink. Uncoil the long strands of my DNA and see how words build its base pairs, not polymers: scribe, sesh, scrība, scríobhaí, grammateús, dubsar. The gods claimed me for their own at my spiritual conception, pressing their fingerprints into the soft surface of my newborn soul so I would carry their whorls and ridges forever. I do not know who I am outside of this role because I do not exist as a complete being apart from it. I am the scribe before every name I have ever borne and beneath every face I have ever worn. And I will be the scribe in every life, in every universe, unto the end of all existence.
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?
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.
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.