The ghost women in the walls sway with river current, hair drifting in reedy halos, eyes like fresh dug graves (a tired comparison but an apt one), they reach down from the ceiling for me while their viola voices vibrate a song which I will mourn the loss of upon waking, and though I know they mean to pull me through and switch our places, lock me in their two-dimensional tomb and steal my warm, vibrant life for their own, still I reach back, rising slowly up through the air to meet those filmy moonglow fingers, almost close enough to touch as the music swells; it is lovely just to be wanted, no matter the reason, and anyway I already know what it is to be dead, why should I mind being dead somewhere else?
It won’t be like Sendai
But still, I feel beholden to them
Those 70 young lives lost to laxity
And if I let it happen here
If I let us fail our own children
We will have failed Okawa’s as well
There are no natural disasters
Only deaths we could have prevented
Lessons we refused to learn
Ghosts we carry with us forever and hope
To do right by
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!
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.
You are a more valuable lover to me dead and gone than alive and in my arms. I would rather mourn the person you might have had the possibility of becoming than have daily to face who you really are. You are awful, do you know that? You are cruel and selfish and fickle. It was attractive once, that danger, that heartbreak, but now it is simply tiring. I am tired of begging you to stay. I am tired of the inevitable disappointment when you don’t. I am tired of being left behind.
So I am not asking this time. If you keep making the wrong choice I have no option but to take choice itself away. You brought this on yourself, darling. Why couldn’t you just stay for once?
You are a terrible person but you will make a lovely corpse.
Come, spirit, sit beside me.
We do not need to speak.
We do not need to strive for or against.
We can sit quietly,
and just be in the moment,
you and I.
And when you are ready
you may go on your way.
The first day after I swore an oath to Wepwawet to take up deathwork, I found a desiccated vole on the front porch. I have no idea how a mummified rodent would appear there, out of range of any overhang one might potentially have fallen from. It didn’t appear to have been snacked on much, though enough skin was missing on its face that my wife was able to rescue the skull fairly easily. It’s so small and fragile I’m afraid to touch it with my clumsy fingers. Was it a gift? A confirmation? I’m not sure.
The second day after I swore an oath to Wepwawet to take up deathwork, I drove past a dead cat in the middle of the road. It was just a few blocks from work and early enough in the morning that the road wasn’t too busy. I pulled over and gently lifted the poor thing – stiff, but not overly so; he hadn’t been dead long – and set him on the grassy sidewalk. He had thick gray-white fur and the healthy roundness of a well-fed pet. Someone will be looking for him (I hope), so I left him there for his family to find. Instead I just lay my hand on his soft fur and said a prayer over him, then went on with my day. But I can’t get his blood-splattered paws out of my mind, or his shattered hard palate. I hope it was quick. I hope it was painless. It probably wasn’t.
I never imagined I would walk this path. I can’t imagine where it might lead. I hope I’m strong enough.
I thought you would feel more… lacking. Emptier somehow, almost incorporeal. But no, you were as solid in death as you were in life. As I lifted you from the road I felt the weight of your body in my hands, fat and muscle and bone under soft fur. When I laid my hand on your side you might have been just asleep, save for the stillness of your chest. That’s where I lay my hand on my own cat as he sleeps at my side, feeling with every rise and fall the life pumping within him. Is there someone tonight whose own hand gropes in the dark for the comfort of your presence yet touches only your vacant space? I wonder, when they find you will you feel as heavy to them as you felt to me? Or will their hands register the absence of your soul as an unbearable lightness?
All things covet whatever state or aspect is so intrinsically their opposite that by definition they can never experience it. Thus does death, ever passive, covet desire, ever active. Thus does desire, ever in motion, covet death, ever inert. Air rushes to fill a vacuum. The black hole draws stars into its embrace. We crush the things we covet in our attempt to make them forever ours and to make ourselves forever them. Is there even a fraction of a second where we become one with the coveted before our immutable nature obliterates it? And if so, is that moment worth the destruction? Experience says no. Selfishness says yes, try again. Crush, crush, crush.
When I first began praying to Wepwawet it was for good parking spaces and light traffic.
See, back then I thought, He’s the god of travel, right? Opener of the Ways? Why not? And admittedly, he didn’t seem to mind. But eventually my half-joking prayers became more legitimate requests and thanks for his continued protection as I travel. I set up an altar and bought him an icon, and over time I came to associate him with my father due to their shared love of ships, cars, planes, and other modes of travel. I liked to think my father had met Wepwawet after he died and asked the god to watch over me. Wepwawet’s presence felt a bit like he was doing someone a favor – not in the sense that he was obligated to keep me safe, but in the sense that he asked very little from me in return. For several years he was just the quiet, chill god who I thanked for saving me from my own terrible driving, a god who seemed happy with whatever offerings I had and never demanded anything more. This was our relationship for so long that I just assumed it would always be this way.
Oh, what fools these mortals be. Every god brings change – when will I learn?
Cut to the global shitshow that is 2020. I’m mentally and emotionally exhausted, lost in perhaps the worst depression I’ve ever experienced. I desperately want to leverage my privilege to be a force of good in our world but I’m struggling with how exactly to do that. I’m no warrior or leader or orator, nor do I have a huge following I can leverage to enact real change. I’m also limited by my own physical and mental health issues, and now have the added concern about catching covid-19 at some public event and passing it to my high-risk wife. So what can I do on the individual level that will still have a real impact for others? What can any one person do to push back this tide of darkness?
I keep coming back to deathwork. So many lives, both human and animal, are needlessly sacrificed on the twin altars of capitalism and white supremacy, and many of those lost don’t have anyone to grieve for them. Lately other pagans have started sharing their rituals to honor the dead, especially spirits who are related to us not by blood but by marginalized identities and shared suffering, and their work is inspiring. I’ve been toying with doing something similar yet neither Inanna nor the Morrigan, the two gods I follow who are most connected to death, seemed to be urging me to take this up with them. So the idea of deathwork has just been sitting in the back of my mind (like so many other spiritual things I tell myself I’ll do “soon” and then never do) – until last week.
When I do my weekly devotions with my gods I usually only briefly connect with Wepwawet to give thanks for his protection and to present an offering. This time, though, as I watched the shadows dance across his statue I was just… struck, I suppose, by this sudden understanding that my journey into deathwork is meant to start with him. It was so obvious! I whipped out my tarot deck to get further clarification. I don’t usually use indicator cards but one grabbed my attention and demanded it be set at the top of the spread. After that I drew three more cards. Here are my interpretations:
- Indicator card: The Emperor – I’m not dealing with chill, informal Wepwawet now; this is Wepwawet as Lord of the Duat and Opener of the Way. The hard work is coming.
- Where does your path for me begin? Page of Wands – Here and now! Wepwawet is confirming he will be my guide and that I need to take the plunge. No more hesitating.
- Where does your path for me lead? The Magician – Harnessing creativity, willpower, and unseen forces to master new skills. A deeper understanding and relationship with magic and/or deathwork, perhaps?
- What must I do next? King of Pentacles – Plant the seed and begin to nurture it with passion, hard work, and patience. Again, my time of uncertainty and hesitance is over; it’s time to begin the real work.
This feels like a strong confirmation that not only should I move forward with deathwork, but Wepwawet will be the main god to guide me through it. I’m excited to work with Wepwawet in a more formal way and I hope this will help me feel like I’m doing something constructive to uphold ma’at and destroy isfet.
The Oracle told me the woman with the horse skull was an omen, a messenger. But of what/who? War, pestilence, famine, or death? Look around; we are mired in all four. We trudge through the blood-wetted mud of a global battlefield, wounded by hope and burdened by despair. If that skeletal woman-thing meant me to face the harshest aspects of our world as part of my spiritual journey, I already do so daily. I am quite familiar with the dark goddess and I have never flinched from her stark, painful truths. So why confront me with such menace?
Perhaps that creature wasn’t sent by any god or goddess and there was no lesson behind its mocking words. Perhaps it was simply a shred of evil manifesting in my dream to sow fear and discord. Maybe it was the novel coronavirus, or racism, or homophobia; maybe it was capitalism or misogyny or the police state. Maybe it was America as she truly looks, not open-armed Lady Liberty or honorable Lady Justice but grasping, clawing Lady Greed. She hungers even as the ruling class sacrifices millions of innocent lives at her altar, and though she promises them wealth she will devour them in the end as well.
Ward your homes and your hearts. Evil holds much sway in our world right now.
In my dream a goddess led me up a long, winding staircase in the dome of a mountain. I thought she was Inanna, though I cannot remember now if she offered that as her name or if I assumed it from her appearance. She looked like how Inanna appears to me – a beautiful, naked woman with thick red hair, voluptuous breasts, and full hips. The only difference was that this woman bore both a penis and a vagina, yet I did not find this odd given Inanna’s power over gender. I understood she intended to complete some ritual by which to awaken other gods, or perhaps to resurrect them. I wasn’t sure of the exact details but I trusted her intentions and was happy to be of assistance.
After we walked for what seemed an eternity, we reached a vast stone chamber beneath the mountain’s peak. There was a dais at the top of the stairs on which stood two thick candles. The dais leaned out over a circular platform which seemed suspended in the air, save for a single staircase connecting them. The platform floated above a darkness which reached all the way down to the heart of the mountain. Its surface was carved with casting circles, sigils, and other such symbols of power, and in the center was a large image of a goddess.
Inanna took up a dagger from the dais and used it to cut both her palms. She then grasped the candles and as they soaked in her blood images suddenly flickered in the air around her, so fast I could barely make them out. They were all women, mostly dark haired and black clad, and I understood them to be all of the forms this goddess had taken since the dawn of time. Most of them were long forgotten, truly ancient, primordial beings who never even had names, yet some I recognized. I can’t remember who exactly but I think I saw the Morrigan, maybe Lilith and Ereshkigal, or other such goddesses of death and darkness and the underworld.
The images flickered out and Inanna stood now in the center of the sunken platform, beckoning me to join her. She needed blood and semen to complete the ceremony, and I was eager to lay with her. I descended the stairs to the sunken platform below, yet when I set foot onto the carvings everything changed. Not like lightning, but like how quickly the darkness descends in its wake. The carved circle was now a pit filled with sharp black gravel. In it a woman crouched, her feet buried in the rubble. She was a pale, starved thing and wore only a ragged black dress that covered little of her sunken flesh. The hands she extended were naught but splintered, blackened bone that dug into my flesh as she grabbed hold. I looked from them to her face and cried out in terror. Her head was a blackened horse skull topped with straggled black hair. Its long teeth grinned at me while its empty eye sockets leered and seemed to see too much.
I couldn’t even hear my screams; the chamber, or perhaps just my mind, was filled with a cacophony of screeching noise like every instrument in the world being tortured at once. I turned away to run for the stairs but her bony hands yanked me back. The long snout of the horse skull appeared over my shoulder, breathing rotten air past my ear as her grave dirt voice laughed and asked, “Isn’t this what you wanted?”
Maybe we just didn’t understand each other at the beginning and in reality we’re more alike than either of us thought. We are both selfish things, after all, and we both abhor a cage. We nurse our wounds like fine liquor. We wear our grudges like fine jewels. Look back on the things I’ve done; see that I can be as cold and as cutting as you. Have I proven myself to you yet? Do you finally recognize some small kindred shard of yourself in me, enough at least for you to desire its nurturing? There is much that only you could teach me. There is much I understand about you that no other ever will. Must we be at odds? Can we not work together?
When the N——- first revealed herself to me I had a vision-like daydream of my creation. I saw Bast in a vast darkness, the darkness of creation, and between Her cupped hands flickered a small orb of light. I knew it to be the little ember of my soul newly birthed from the infinite flame of my mother’s heart. The N——- was there in the darkness as well, for she is witness to all forms of creation and destruction, and I thought I heard her say, “That one.” My mother nodded. I took this to mean it was the N——- who chose me as scribe, who first laid claim to my fate and thus determined the path of servitude I’d follow through every life. But I was wrong.
“You think it was she who chose you,” my mother tells me now, “but it was he.” And now I understand. There was a third there in that darkness, a third who is also witness to every moment of every life: death. He chose me. He set me on this path. Of course; how could I have thought it to be any other way?
Of course I would be the one to covet the regal arrogance of Lucifer Morningstar, to yearn for the grotesque beauty of Hannibal’s madness, I who was
(given sold chosen) branded at birth with the mark of the Beast, not three little numbers but your sickle-sharp crescent moon. Whether I like it or not I have always been yours above all else, my heart promised to the Devil long before I was aware enough to comprehend the consequences. You await me at the end of every road and lurk at the dark edges of every dream. Your judgement is a collar around my neck; your dominion is a veil across my eyes. I long to be worthy of your disdainful love, yet I fear what price I might pay to secure it. You are death itself, the void of infinite emptiness – can you comprehend how easily a human life is crushed beneath the totality of your attention? And if you can… do you care?
I touched Death. No, I was swallowed down by him. His body was iron, his hand a vice around my neck. Too bad you all rot in the ground, he said. I fell for an eternity through his darkness like a
house with black walls and no limits. I was wrong. I thought the N——- frightening but chaos is nothing next to the emptiness of death. He has not abandoned me. He is waiting. He will punish my faithlessness.
The Nameless is the vastness of the ocean. She is dark trenches full of strange creatures with eyes like pale globes; she is sunken ships buried in pelagic sediment; she is things thought long dead and things never before glimpsed in the light of day. She is the horizon extending unbroken in all directions. She is vanished airplanes and flying ghost ships and cities lost to wrathful waves.
The Nameless is the vastness of space. She is the bright points of Inanna’s morning star and the sharp blade of Artemis’ crescent moon. She is the void’s absolute absence of light or life. She is the incomprehensible enormity of supermassive blackholes; she is the unstoppable destruction of solar storms and hypernovae. She is fire from the sky, the longest night, the dusty river of the Milky Way.
The Nameless is the vastness of the grave. She is rot and mold and fresh-turned earth. She is catacombs, crypts, pyramids, pyres. She is stone so softened by a millennia of rain that the name it bears is lost to time. She is the banshee’s wail, the grim’s red stare, the braying horns of the Wild Hunt. She is the feather and scales, and she is the jaws of Ammit waiting to devour the heavy heart.
You are the god of the knife edge
Of apathy like creeping ice
The vast emptiness of the wasteland
Smoke and ash and bone
Of wrath, survival, the withholding of mercy
Pride and freedom and the fall
You are the wandering moon; you are the cruel trickster; you are the inevitable winter.
You are death.
I can almost feel your breath as you murmur in my ear, What if it wasn’t murder in the first place? What if it was self-defense? Or revenge? Or what if it wasn’t the Moon at all who killed the Sun that first and most fateful time? What if they were a setup, the blade and the blood and the blame? You say there is a universe for every possible iteration, so why not these? Your laugh is a cold, serrated thing. What if you’ve been asking the wrong question all these years? No wonder you’ve never found the true answer. Foolish little scribe, you have always been so quick to judge my words as lies – did you never think my noble lover capable of deception as well? No, his tongue is sweeter than honey and sharper than any blade. But you will never learn.
a tent half buried
the wind keens a mourning song
footprints in the snow
I remember you in the summer:
the heady scent of fresh cut grass
wild blackberries warmed by the sun
eagles soaring high in a clear blue sky
I remember you in the fall:
the trumpet call of geese flying south
white fog tangled in evergreen trees
leaves and pine cones crunching underfoot
I remember you in the winter:
the gleam of bare branches encased in ice
wood smoke drifting on the chill wind
snowflakes falling in lazy circles
I remember you in the spring:
the chirp of baby swallows in their nests
footprints through the dewy grass
daffodil faces lifted toward the sun
Some say revenge is a dish best served cold. Others say the best revenge is a life well lived. These claims, however, are in actuality both quite inadequate. I have taken revenge countless times, in every manner possible and with every kind of weapon, and I therefore can state with confidence that the most satisfying revenge is intimate. A razor to the throat; a blade to the breast; a knife to the back. The sort of sharp, bloody end most fitting for traitors and cowards, those whose betrayal has cut you to your very core. You want to hold your victim in your arms so you feel the moment his strength finally fails. You want to hear the blood bubbling in his throat as he struggles to breathe. You want to hold his gaze as he dies so in his final moment he knows you did not forget and will not forgive. It is like a dance, two partners entwined, heartbeat to heartbeat, and then the knife. It always ends with the knife.
You ask why the Moon killed the Sun but never why the resurrected Sun in turn killed the Moon. Did he really do so to restore balance to the world, as the story says? To complete the cycle of sacrifice and usher in glorious summer? Perhaps. It gives a nice symmetry to the mythology, doesn’t it? Death for life and life for death. But maybe that’s just the fairy tale version where everything has a purpose and everyone a happy ending. Maybe that’s nothing more than a lovely lie.
Maybe the truth is that the Sun killed the Moon simply for the sweet satisfaction of revenge.
The body he wears is beautiful and young yet the entity inside is so ancient, so vast, it is incomprehensible even to experienced entities like the long-lived vampires. Lesser creatures, demonlings and imps and goblins, flee before him like schools of fish before a shark. Witches bare their throats to him as he passes and dare not even think of crossing him, lest they draw attention to themselves. He is no mere demon to be banished or spirit to be exorcized; neither holy water nor black salt, nor even the will of God’s own angels, could stop him from so much as lifting a finger. Those wise enough to respect the true magnitude of his power bow to him and pray desperately he passes them by to torment some other poor thing – and perhaps he does, this time, but it is impossible to guess where his lightning-quick cruelty will strike next.
I flatter myself to imagine you stalk the halls of my mind
cutting the throats of my better angels and lesser demons
until only you remain, a virus on a throne
the crescent moon shining on your brow
and gleaming in your hand
What did You do, O Queen of Heaven, for those three long days You hung dead on the hook? Christ probably ascended to Heaven and returned once more in his three days, and Odin must have been absorbing all the knowledge of the universe in his nine nights, so what about you? While Ninshubur wept at Your absence and Ereshkigal writhed in birthing pains, where were You? Were You in Your heavy body experiencing for the first time how mortal flesh rots and decays? Or were You, like Odin, stretching out Your consciousness to touch the vast unknown? If myth be true, death buys the most precious secrets, especially if that death be a willing one bargained for truth. You must have learned something, for there are times when I can see the white skull grinning beneath Your skin or all the darkness of the underworld condensed into Your heavy-lidded eyes. But that is the reward of walking Your road, isn’t it; what knowledge You gained in death can be revealed only if we make such a sacrifice ourselves.
I dreamed I stood on a raised platform in the entrance to a church. Anubis stood at my side, tall and dark and silent. He handed me a thin gold wand; when I touched it, both ends lengthened until it became a staff with a sun on one end and two long prongs on the other. I glanced down and spotted a similar wand, only silver, laying on the floor at my feet. I bent to retrieve it and handed it to Anubis. When He took the wand it began to grow as the other had, lengthening into a silver staff with a crescent moon on one end and a single sharp point on the other. He gestured then toward the far end of the church, indicating I should walk forward, and though He didn’t speak I somehow understood part of his meaning to be “do not be afraid”. I stepped off the platform and found myself standing on air. I took another step and the invisible path held; in this way we made our way down the aisle of the church with the pews laid out below us. As we approached the altar something appeared in the air before us; a dark, twisting mass which radiated menace. I knew even before it began uncoiling itself that it was A/p/e/p, the chaos of absolute nothingness manifested as a great black serpent bent on the destruction of all existence. It opened its fanged jaws and struck at Anubis, who repelled it with the sharpened end of His staff. The creature then lunged for me and I did the same with my own weapon, bellowing as I drove the points into the serpent’s armored face. I think I might have spoken as I beat it back, might have yelled out the names of its victims, my lost loved ones, but I can’t remember. I do know I held their images in my mind as I struck and found some measure of comfort in harming the force which took them from me. A/p/e/p fled after this and from there the dream changed, yet I will never forget the fury with which I fought, nor the quiet, solid presence of Anubis at my side.
I bring you offerings of tarot cards and whiskey and in return you kiss your burning mark upon my brow, that in my dreams I may pass through the realm of angels and demons without harm. The white wolf makes its last stand before nine tall trees while the emperor slits his throat and bleeds out a golden river in the grass as the hanged man. I am the scribe blessed by death, immune to the curses of witches and the poisons of vipers, and nothing can keep me from you. I will calm the wolf and bind his wounds. I will bury the hanged man and adorn his grave with flowers. I will know you in every iteration from heaven to hell for you have named me Anant the endless, Anant the seventy-ninth card, Anant who is witness to the beginning and the end. Thus I wait. Thus I watch.
these days I dream mostly about atomic bombs and solar flares, with maybe the odd radioactive meltdown thrown in for good measure (don’t want Chernobyl to feel left out), and so I’ve gotten pretty used to that hot white flare and the instantaneous incineration which follows, after all I’ve got a decent imagination and I bet I’ve died a hundred times in this particular apocalypse, so many times in fact that it’s gotten so I’m not even that scared anymore, really, I see the light on the horizon and I’m just like Oh, okay, here we go again, and then in more or less the same second I’m decimated, annihilated, exterminated, all those good long verbs you hope can’t ever be applied to your physical form, but it turns out they don’t actually hurt too much so that’s some good news, yeah? and uh, anyway, I didn’t really have a point to this except maybe that dreaming constantly about the end of the world isn’t so bad if it means I’ll be emotionally prepared when the real one comes, like Hey buddy, took you long enough!, and I swear I mean that in a positive, hopeful kind of way but damn, it doesn’t really sound so good when I say it out loud, does it?