rabbit kit dying in the grass
dead bumblebee on the blacktop
setting sun bleeds red
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
You may be a god, my love, but here on my blade you die like any mortal and here in my forest you rot like any animal. Fear not; I am here with you in your dying, just as I shall be with you in your rotting. I shall be with you when your laboring heart finally spasms and stills (not too long now, you have lost so much blood already). I shall be with you when your cells begin to slowly suffocate en masse, thirty trillion microscopic deaths triggered by your last shallow breath. I shall be with you as your cooling meat begins to spoil. I shall be with you when the coyotes tear at your choicest organs, muzzles stained red and tongues lolling (your godblood tastes so sweet, you know, it is the only drink I have ever hungered for), and the crows bicker over the honor of pecking out your eyes. I shall be with you as your flesh is consumed like holy communion to feed my host of scavengers and decomposers, leaving only your lovely bones behind as grave markers. And I shall be here still when fungi sprout up through the sockets of your whitening skull and wildflowers twine around the bars of your rib cage, nourished on the nutrients of your long forgotten corpse which yet enrich the soil. I am always with you, beloved, so fear neither the blade nor the breaking down. Death has ever been your dearest companion.
In another life I might have been a priestess, but the gods I serve don’t need a temple or a following. They need their story told. They need a scribe. So here I am.
I serve the Sun and Moon. The names they chose to give me are Tanim and Daren, though you will know them under other names: Satan and Lucifer, Will and Hannibal, Patroclus and Achilles, the Oak and Holly Kings. They’ve had many names and lived countless lives. Their stories may be familiar to you as well. Life, death; love, hate; sacrifice, betrayal.
On the winter solstice the Sun will die by his lover’s hand. The Moon started this cycle eons ago, though even I could not tell you exactly why. On the summer solstice the Sun will resurrect and slay the Moon in turn. Thus the wheel of the year is greased with blood, life paid for with life, death with death. Sometimes they go to their deaths willingly; others they struggle in vain against immutable fate; but always a solstice ends with death. Even gods cannot change such things.
As their scribe I record these deaths, whatever they show me in whatever form they dictate. Between solstices I continue to write for them, memories and dreams and scenes, anything they require. There’s not much here that’s lovely or light – it’s a mythos steeped in blood, full of cruelty and heartache, but there’s beauty in it too. And love, of a complicated sort. Love that cut down the host of Heaven and slayed a Dragon on a cliff side.
Take a dip into the dark river. See what my eighteen years as scribe have produced so far.
See past solstice pieces.
See everything I have written for and about them.
See pieces written from Tanim’s point of view.
See pieces written from Daren’s point of view.
As I lay in bed in the dark (click) early hours the preacher man speaks to me over Geiger counter radio crackle (click… click), he tells me if I’m lonely and (click) tired of the silence the dead are always ready to talk, they’re always (click click) so, so hungry and they would love to devour me, too; he shows me the prison down the road like that’s where they live maybe (click… click click), do they congregate there? does the prison (click click) even have a cemetery? I don’t reply to him; instead I bury my face in the pillow and speak to my absent (click) gods, the Sun and Moon, I tell them I will sit in the silence (click click click) as long as it takes for them to answer me because they’re the only ones I want to talk to, not the hungry dead or this creepy preacher ghost-thing, but inside I know I’m afraid if I listen to the dead for too long I won’t be able to stop (click click clickclickclick clickclickclickclickclickclick —).
Resurrected by the dying light and trailing the dirt of your grave pit, my corpse once more takes up its patrol. The alley; the living room; the bedroom; the roof. Finding no evidence of habitation, not even a drop of blood or the faint linger of cigarette smoke, it returns once more to the alley to start the round over again. Driven by duty to the approaching solstice, it will continue this pointless vigil no matter how much dust accumulates as proof of your final abdication. Such a dumb, brute thing! It simply cannot comprehend that you are never coming back. Yet I suppose I should not blame it – your instructions are carved into its bones, woven into its muscles, encoded in its cells. Even in death my poor corpse knows no rest and will limp along until its rotting limbs can carry it no longer. Foolish thing. Look what loyalty earned you.
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:
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.