When I was a kid I imagined my dad’s death a lot. It was always one of two scenarios: either I would watch him shrink in my vision as the lifeboat I sat in lowered slowly into the cold water, leaving my father to await certain death on the foundering Titanic, or I would watch from the safety of the underground tornado shelter as, gripping the flimsy door to keep it latched and me safe, he was sucked up into the maw of the roaring funnel. The influence of history and pop culture on those scenes is obvious, and certainly I was a morbid child by nature anyway, but as I lay here in the midnight dark I wonder if there is more to them than overactive imagination. I wonder if my younger self sensed on some instinctive level that her father would be taken from her without warning and sought to prevent this looming disaster by compulsively imagining worst case scenarios. Or maybe she was simply attempting to blunt the inevitable future pain of his loss by repetition. Either way it didn’t work, perhaps because in those scenarios he was always sacrificing himself to save me when in the end there was no danger, no moment of swift choice between his life or his daughter’s. I was only a child, after all; back then I understood the threat disasters posed, but not that human ineptitude could just as easily shatter my fragile world.
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! ]
I carry the Disaster Dead with me always: Okawa’s precious children, lost to the waves; Pompeii’s huddled masses, lost to the ash; Titanic’s frozen passengers, lost to the cold. And more, so many more taken by pandemics, hurricanes, heatwaves, earthquakes, wildfires, famine. The burden of their unnecessary deaths is a reminder of the necessity of knowledge. Knowledge empowers the uninformed. Knowledge prepares the vulnerable. Knowledge saves lives that might otherwise fall to preventable, or at least mitigable, forces. There are no natural disasters, after all, only natural hazards exacerbated by human action – or inaction. Okawa’s children did not have to die within reach of high ground. Texans did not need to freeze in their homes. The west coast does not have to burn every summer for longer and longer periods until “fire season” becomes a meaningless phrase.
The Disaster Dead are also a reminder of my own self-ordained responsibility to ensure the people of my homeland do not share a similar fate, that we do not doom ourselves to repeat the past simply because we refuse to learn from its most painful lessons. What else can soothe the wailing of the Disaster Dead? What else can truly honor their memory? Never forget is a trite, passive promise when our historical knowledge stretches back thousands of years. We never forgot the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, but what good did that do us in 2020? Never again is the promise we must make and uphold as a global society. Never again should we allow greed to outweigh the common good. Never again should we ignore experience or science in favor of ignorance. And never again should we allow the loss of lives we could have saved with care, dedication, and preparation.
I carry the Disaster Dead with me always. Some speak louder than others, and some may have come to me sooner, but I carry them all. I mourn them, I honor them, and I try my best to uphold my vow to them – never again.
This is what it means to love the Three of Swords: no matter what choices you make, what mistakes you try to avoid this time around, still you will always come to the blood and the begging. All roads lead here, to this moment when his hands tremble and his eyes glaze with panic and his chest jerks as he sucks in each staccato breath, only to choke up blood on exhalation. Even if you do nothing to hasten this end you will still wind up on your knees beside him one day, your fingers brushing back his tangled hair and wiping at his tears while you plead, “Stay, darling, please, hold on, you can’t go yet.” But he has no choice; his heart was pierced long ago and that unhealed wound bleeds eternally just like yours. He too must have a failsafe in case the time comes when you cannot bear to take up the knife and commit the deed yourself. Did you really think he would be exempt from your shared fate?
Did you really want him to be?
Awake or asleep? I bite down and an upper tooth crumbles, filling my mouth with shards and blood. I spit them out but my mouth just floods again.
Awake or asleep? The new apartment is full of earwigs. Did they even bother fumigating before we moved in? I hate it here. I hate this city. Why did we move here? I’ll take any job, even one at that shitty factory, if it means making enough money to move away one day. I have to get out of here.
Awake or asleep? Everything is blurry; I can’t quite see the road past my heavy eyelids. I try to turn the steering wheel but it won’t move, so I just close my eyes as my car jumps the pavement and hurtles into oncoming traffic.
Awake or asleep? As the bus rolls beneath me I stare at the curved scar in the center of my palm. When did I get this? I don’t remember it. Has it always been there? Its mirror twin rests on my other palm. They begin to hurt, a sharp, urgent pain like something is trying to burst through my skin.
Awake or asleep? Above me lightning and meteors illuminate a stormy night sky. The meteors crisscross in a hatchwork, hundreds, then thousands, tens of thousands, and then suddenly – they freeze. Grow brighter. Brighter. Brighter. Their light blazes, burns! Around me people begin to scream and flee, but it’s too late. We’re already infected.
Awake or asleep? This room doesn’t feel quite right. The windows, were there always two? The bed, is it smaller than usual? Does the hallway look correct? Awake or asleep, why doesn’t this feel right? Am I awake or asleep? I’m awake. I’m awake, right? I’m awake, but then I wake up. I wake up, but the room doesn’t feel quite right. The window is wrong. I’m awake, but then I wake up. Something about the bed is strange. Alien. Am I awake? I wake up.
I’m awake. Right?
you rise from the earth like some radiant Lord Vishnu, your sable locks and sun-kissed skin dusted in a rainbow of flower pollen like vibrant Holi powder, but those who watch your ascent in awe don’t know you’ve covered yourself in this floral beauty to hide the bloodstains beneath, nor what godly corpse may lay hidden in the blooms at your feet
everything I write that is not about you is a stop-gap measure to stave off starvation, I finished the last of the spoiled canned goods and am resorting now to gnawing the tough leather of my boot soles, and if this continues much longer all they will find of me are scattered white bones, the smooth calcium marred by the serrations of my knife
I dream that I have failed. The tiny, struggling cat rescue I’ve spent years trying to help keep afloat has finally gone under. Where will all the cats go? I think. Where will they go, who will feed them, who will bind their wounds and shelter them against the cruelty of the world? As I walk numbly through a grassy field toward rows of kennels, perhaps to say goodbye to the cats inside for the last time, I whisper the names of those already lost so that I won’t forget them. Yet when I reach the kennels I find their doors all open and the cats streaming through the grass past me. They run eagerly, all in the same direction, as if toward some destination I cannot see. Even the littlest day-old kittens with their ears still buttoned down and their eyes still squeezed shut try to stumble through the tall grass after mothers and older siblings. I have to stop walking or I’ll step on someone by accident, so I kneel down in the grass and begin gathering babies up in my arms to keep them safe. Some older kittens climb into my lap as well, or up onto my shoulders, and soon I’m weighed down in a blanket of warm, squirming bodies. Their purring vibrates through me so loudly it drowns out my thoughts, my frantic heartbeat, a glorious pean washing over me in a crescendo of wordless voices. Within its embrace I finally break; I bury my face into sweet silken fur and add my own wordless, animal howling to the hymn-turned-lament. I let grief wrack my body in violent sobs as if I am a bean sí crying out the world’s doom. By the time my exhausted body has no tears left to shed nor sound to utter and I lift my head once more, everything around me has burned to ash and I am alone.
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?
crow scavenges the dead
coyote devours the crow
the Circle balanced
life for a life
then coyote falls to fire and gunpowder
the Circle shattered
life taken only
for man’s boundless greed
like a maiden plucking flower petals, so idly did She cast her raiment off
striding naked into the pit of the underworld, proud head held high
to welcome Her death with a queen’s grace, arms wide and eyes alight
no songs in the underworld
instead I listen
and learn the value of silence
On this longest day of the year your priestesses take to the streets to celebrate the Sun triumphant. Clad in flowing silks and precious gems, skin glowing with gold dust, they blend their voices in lilting harmony as they sing your praises. Dancers dip and weave in time to the pounding of drums; tiny bells on their ankles jingle with each minute movement. Despite the heat of the day, torchbearers carry flaming braziers into which your oracles toss incense laced with poppy and nightshade. The procession treads on rose petals thrown by the gathered crowd until the marble boulevard gleams red in the sunlight.
Finally the litter bearing your statue comes into view and the cacophony of chanting, drumming, and clapping reaches a crescendo. Here you are in all your glory, white marble form adorned in gold and shining like a beacon. The writhing incense smoke makes your placid expression appear to flicker through emotions – wrath, sorrow, regret, compassion – as if even cold stone can be moved by the prayers of the masses. Those gathered call out to you as the litter passes, giving praise and begging blessings, or bow their heads and weep for the honor of witnessing your sacred statue with their own eyes.
Only one person who serves your holiness is not at this celebration. Do you notice my absence, Lord Sun? Does it offend you? Or are you pleased at least someone holds vigil with the corpse of your slain lover? Out in the streets they rejoice the godblood dripping on your hands yet only you and I know the truth of it. Let your priestesses and oracles exult in your victory today; your scribe will do right by the fallen Moon, even if I am the only one mourning the death of darkness on the longest day of the year.
through seven gates descend
surrendering ego to the inertness of death
and rise again a unified whole
rabbit kit dying in the grass
dead bumblebee on the blacktop
setting sun bleeds red
“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.
Deathwork and the Preservation of Life
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?
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.
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.
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.
tsunami’s skeleton lingers
tanker carcasses, prefab husks
concrete seawall spirit tablets
restless plates rattle memorial bones
decaying half-lives, funereal mud
seventy thousand pine tree ghosts
you ask why I rage
while you toss the leavings
from your chainsaws
on my fires
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
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.
Born under Leo in the year of the Dragon
Ace of Wands embers smoldering in my marrow
I am driven to create, feverish with purpose.
Yet now I prostrate myself upon winter’s wet soil
extinguish my flames, welcome the dark
and let scavengers tear out the choicest sweets.
I shall disperse in beetle bellies, corvid craws
rot down to inert atoms under the moonlight
cease, surrender, stagnate
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?)
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.