my body is a nuclear reactor in which I alchemize grief into rage // shedding as hazardous byproducts unstable atoms of // anxiety, compulsion, paranoia // which I store away deep in my belly where they // cannot leak out and harm innocent bystanders // or worse yet, embarrass me // but such transformation requires a complex and delicate machine // and I am only one person // the lights in the monitoring panels start to blink and // I am only one person // the alarms on the walls start to shrill and // I am only one person // an explosion rocks my core and as everything goes dark I am // only one person
I meet Mnemosyne at a bus stop beside the River Lethe.
White boulders lay scattered along the riverbank, the grooves and hollows worn onto their surfaces by the river’s swift waters making the rocks look like massive skulls. As I walk the shore, careful to stay back from the potent waters, I notice lit candles clustered among the rocks and floating in little bowls. I’m not alone; people kneel in the shallows, weeping quietly over offerings of flowers, bones, and other little gifts. I nod to the makeshift memorials and offer a silent prayer to whomever they’re for: may those who have passed be at peace.
Turning away from the river to let the mourners have their privacy, I walk back toward the bus stop and approach a little wooden stand I hadn’t noticed before. On top sits what looks like a visitors log, the kind you might find at a trailhead or visitors center, only the pages have been laminated and are wet with mist from the river. Anything written on them has been rendered illegible by the water. Sensing someone’s gaze on me, I look up to see a woman watching me through hard, pale eyes. Everything about her is pale, actually – her flawless skin, her pressed lips, her long fall of perfectly straight hair. As with the guestbook pages, her angular body is slightly damp as well, making her look like a marble statue left out in the rain. The woman’s gaze weighs on me, harsh, judging, but when she speaks I know I’ve passed some test with my respect for the mourners at the river.
The words of the mad are not for others’ eyes, she says, indicating the book with its illegible, impermanent writing. They should not be read. They should not be remembered. I take this to mean the people I saw weeping at the edge of the Lethe had gone mad with grief, or perhaps had lost themselves to the memory of their particular dead and couldn’t let go. I realize then who I am speaking with – Mnemosyne, goddess of memory, daughter of Gaia, and mother of the nine muses. She presides over the Pool of Memory, though, not the River of Forgetfulness. Perhaps Her presence here indicates that She protects those who have lost their memory, and thus their minds, to grief or madness.
Then again, is there really much of a difference sometimes?
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
Gunfire in my dreams, and beyond the canvas tent flaps a humid jungle landscape I will never visit but perhaps lives in me somewhere as ancestral memory. Inside I see my father as a young man, clean shaven and handsome as a movie star. A doctor is telling him his blood pressure is too high and that he’s being honorably discharged. What they can’t say, because they don’t yet understand this phenomenon, is that it’s caused by PTSD. He must have been so ashamed, I say. It’s not bullet wounds, or an amputated limb. Not something visible at all. Our eyes meet and all I can think is how young he looks. Or maybe he was relieved.
the beast inside me isn’t dumb
it smells the burning, it knows
its forest home has been razed
and that you come for it next
There is a woman named Margaret. Years ago she was young, first the silky pastels of spring and then the bright jewel tones of summer. She is not young now, though, for the years of her prime are far in the past. Autumn laid hold of her for a time and she was the burning oranges and reds of its passion. Then winter came, muted blues and the white and black of bare birch trees, and Paul died.
When the flowers on the doorstep stopped arriving, and neighbors stopped dropping off lovingly prepared home-cooked meals, and the doorbell heralding another kind visitor finally fell silent for good, Margaret joined a group. There was a faded flier tacked to the supermarket bulletin board and she tore off one of the little slips on its edge that listed a date, time, and place. Tuesdays, six o’clock. Snacks will be provided.
It was a nice enough group at the start. Paul had been gone four months and in the group a man’s wife had been gone for two, a mother’s young child for three, another husband for five. Others, like Margaret, bore fresher wounds. On Tuesday evenings for exactly one hour the gathered mourners talked as they sipped instant apple cider and grainy hot chocolate from small Styrofoam cups. Winter passed like this, dreary and indistinct, and Margaret tried not to count the days.
Spring came, then. The group grew smaller. Some healed, as much as one can heal after a loss; enough, at least, to let them go back to their singular lives and move on from the group. Some just stopped coming, unable to face another’s grief head on when it stirred up their own. There was always Margaret, though, with her cup of hot chocolate or burnt coffee. Dependable, punctual Margaret.
The fleeting months of spring and summer passed, bringing autumn, bringing winter. The group changed. The old ones were gone. New ones with new stories, new tragedies, came to spill a little grief from their overflowing hearts. Margaret listened; she was good at listening. Spring. Summer. Fall. Winter. A husband gone two months. A wife gone three weeks. A trio of children, gone in an instant. Paul gone forever. Spring. Summer. Fall. Winter. She watched them come and go with the leaves.
There is a woman named Margaret. Years ago she was young but it’s hard to remember those days, the memories worn smooth by the river of time. The brokenhearted come and go, seeking comfort, giving solace. Margaret stays, finding neither. Tuesdays, six o’clock, snacks will be provided. And always there is Margaret.
One of the ways I honor Bast is by experiencing Her pain, grief, and burdens. Not to erase them, not even to ease them; simply to feel them on my own, knowing my emotions are but a small drop compared to Her oceans. Every foster kitten I must give up so someone else can adopt them is a kitten She has sent out into a wide, unpredictable world. Every foster kitten lost to illness or injury is a child She mourns forever. Every cat struck by a speeding car, abandoned by a heartless family, or euthanized by a crowded shelter because no one claimed it in time is a grief that pierces my pincushion heart with another needle – but to my goddess who sees and knows all, they are blades that drive much deeper. I grieve and rage and weep with Her because no one should do these things alone, even an immortal goddess.
The dead begin to forget – that’s why they touch us so often, to remember, to clutch at the memories before they slip away and the past is lost entirely. We have to remind the dead of who and what they were by building monuments and rituals to them. Light a bonfire on the beach and drink cheap beer from a can. Spray her favorite scent on your pillow; reread his favorite battered novel. Hold the worn, well-loved stuffed animals they left behind, wax the car on a sunny weekend, listen to the songs you danced together to all those years ago. This is who you were, you tell them when you do such things. This is who we were together. This is who we are together. The dead begin to forget, just like the living, and just like the living they grieve that forgetting. But they are near to us, so near, and all you need to do is summon them with memory. Remind them. Reconnect them. When they reach out to touch you, reach back.
I dreamed I stood in a dark forest with the wall of a barn-like building nestled among the trees to my right. Around the far corner of the structure a white light began to glow through the encroaching branches. Creeping through the underbrush around the corner, I came into a small clearing where a door in the barn had been rolled aside. I had expected to find a god waiting there, perhaps Loki, but instead in the doorway sat my black cat Bruno. I tried to move toward him but a white cat appeared between us with a hiss. He appeared to be a domestic cat in size and shape but felt… bigger somehow. Wilder. Like the primal essence of Felidae itself.
“But can she prove herself to me?” the white cat was asking. Then his blazing gold eyes caught mine and he commanded, “Hold my gaze with humility if you’re worthy of working with me; your eyes are always too aggressive.” I knelt down and tried to hold the cat’s fierce gaze, willing my own to remain open and honest. I was succeeding until the white cat began to fade into the darkness, making it hard to keep my unblinking gaze on his. When he suddenly popped back into full view I flinched a bit, blinking accidentally, and the test was over. He laughed scornfully and said something like, “That’s what I thought; we’ll try again later,” and disappeared along with Bruno.
Suddenly cats started streaming out of the barn, rushing up to greet me with head bumps, chin rubs, and belly flops. I pet and hugged them all, rubbing tummies and kissing noses as all around me cats purred. The group had a leader of some sort, a black and white tom who sat watching them from the barn doorway. I overheard him say something to someone else, maybe that white cat, about how, “She has to stop using her son as a crutch”. I asked, “My son?”, wondering if he meant Bruno and concerned my grief might be preventing him from reincarnating, but the black and white cat didn’t elaborate.
Instead, the leader began telling me about the cats who now lay around me and in my lap. He said they had no one to take care of them, that they were completely on their own. I think I asked the little female curled in my lap how she died and she said, “A child never came for me so they took me in the back and put the needle full of cold stuff in me.” I saw the story while she told it as if from her own eyes, watching from behind the cold bars of a cage as a huge shadowy human approached. “Oh little one…” I kissed the top of her head as I fought back tears but she wiggled like an eager kitten and piped in her high voice, “It’s okay now! I have a wife here and a little baby of my own!”
The cats were all clearly happy but their leader was saying something about how they needed support, like money… or maybe offerings? I offered to help but I wasn’t sure how I could when they lived in a different realm. I need to do something, though – maybe if I do, the white cat will give me another chance?
Hail to the ancestral dead!
Hail to those ancestors with whom I share blood
and to whom I am bound by love.
Hail to those ancestors with whom I share identity and experience:
queer, pagan, witch, neurodivergent,
all of you ostracized for who and what you were.
May you find joy in the life your descendant lives;
may your hopes come to fruition in me
and your memory be honored by my actions.
Hail to the ancestral dead!
Hail to the stolen dead!
Hail to those of you taken too soon
by the evils of capitalism, colonialism, and fascism,
by hatred and fear, greed and pride.
Those of you stolen from your communities,
ground beneath the heel of your oppressors,
we vow to uphold your memory
to fight against corruption and cruelty
in hopes others may not share your fate.
Hail to the stolen dead!
Hail to the disaster dead!
Hail to those of you lost
to mitigable and preventable disasters:
to earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires
pandemics, droughts, famines.
Hail to those taken before your time;
may we learn from your loss
and take the actions necessary
to ensure others do not share your fate.
Hail to the disaster dead!
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.
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.
After a night spent tossing and turning, grieving the endless noise of humanity and the oppressive heat of summer, the pale September dawn extends a peace offering of thin fog hovering over dewy fields dotted by stands of evergreens and clusters of sleepy cows. This isn’t quite reconciliation – evening traffic will still clog the city’s arteries with exhaust fumes and once white-capped mountains are still disturbingly barren – but perhaps it can serve a noble purpose anyway. Whether it’s a true promise of approaching autumn or only the last vestiges of that dying liminal season, soon to go the way of Tahoma’s dwindling glaciers, I take the gift for what it’s worth and tuck it behind my sternum for safe keeping. Some future night when I’m half mad with mourning all we’ve ruined in the name of progress I’ll pull this memory out and wrap it ’round myself like a blanket, breathing in the scent of damp soil until I finally fall asleep.
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?
look into my eyes;
how can you not see I am
Alexandria’s charred skeleton
Delphi’s discard, Pompeii’s corpse-hollows
a husk of a revenant vomiting
endless bean sí grief-wail?
HOW CAN YOU NOT SEE I AM
A THING ALREADY DEAD?
It’s beyond salvage
Ashfall shrouding charred ruins
No one’s noticed yet
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.
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?
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
I never had a chance to play the role of ex-girlfriend, let alone crazy ex-girlfriend, so it’s kind of you to afford me the opportunity now. I know the label’s not entirely accurate but bear with me, will you? It’s what I feel like, after all. I feel dumped. Ditched. Ghosted. It’s like I came home one day and your shit was just gone, my number blocked, and I was alone for the first time in fifteen years. Do you think it’s that easy, though? Do you think I can’t find you again, that I won’t track you down to a new apartment and hack all your social media accounts? Oh honey, no. I’m not so easy to get rid of and I’m definitely not someone you ghost. I’m walking past your new building at midnight; I’m digging through your trash at dawn; I’m shoving chopped up Polaroids of your new girl through your mail slot while you’re at work. I flirted with the doorman and he gave me your last three Amazon orders. I’m holding onto the hairs from that comb you left in case I need to fake my death and plant a little DNA evidence at the scene. Boy, you’ve made a real bad mistake here because I’ve always wanted to play the crazy ex and now’s my chance to take the starring role. I know this is just a metaphor and all, but metaphorically speaking I am ready to fucking ruin you. Are you excited to get the game started? I sure am.
in these dark days I am grateful for sages and oracles, Greek choruses and seers, for I am bereft of the hope necessary to play such roles anymore, no, now I am too weary, too full of mindless rage to provide good counsel, now I am a banshee and all I can do is wail we are dying, we are dying, we are dying
It has become such a trite phrase, an excuse for bad tattoos and wild partying. But what does it mean beyond those trivialities, beyond the shallowness of YOLO culture? What does it mean to truly live a regret-free life?
It means forgiving.
It means forgiving the past for taking you to this present. It means forgiving yourself for not understanding what was happening at the time, for not clinging to those final moments with tooth and nail. It means forgiving those who may have hastened that end through their carelessness or the flaws in a broken system. It means forgiving every person their lack of omniscience – yet especially yourself. It means forgiving yourself for the things you did and the things you did not do and how that closed all the doors on every possible future but one.
And it means accepting.
It means accepting that you can neither change the past nor predict how it will affect the future. It means accepting that we are only human and that we all make mistakes, every one of us every day, and nothing can change that either. It means accepting endings and embracing beginnings, always. It means accepting a new normal. It means accepting that new normals are not inherently bad, only different.
And it means being able to one day look upon a gravestone without flinching. It means knowing in your heart you did all you could and continue to do all you can. It is not an easy philosophy. It is not a philosophy of misspelled tattoos and drunken selfies. It is a philosophy of hope tempered with the weight of experience. It is a constant striving to do what you think is right in the moment and a constant forgiving of yourself and others once the moment has passed. It is closing the door on the past, yet never locking it.
and in doing so to dismantle the prison tower of my own creation
and to build in its place a watchtower to stand against the darkness.
I offer my determination if You offer your strength.
I offer my sincerity if you offer Your guidance.
I offer my faith if you offer Your goodwill.
And by this oath for a year and a day are we bound.
This is how I think it went down. After Anubis finished weighing my father’s heart on Ma’at’s grand scales – lighter than any feather, magic or otherwise, of course – he was met by Wepwawet to guide him through the underworld. Along the way they got to talking, bonding over a mutual appreciation for travel in all its forms by land, by air, and by sea. It is rare to meet another as knowledgeable as yourself in the more obscure aspects of your passion and they became fast friends.They probably shared about the classic cars they had owned and old motorcycles that had carried them faithfully down hot roads beneath a desert sun. Maybe they discussed the aircraft and ships which had shaped the course of human warfare or reminisced about the modes of travel long outdated by technological evolution.
(This is where the story gets hard for me to write. I keep deleting it. Ignoring it. Pretending I can’t see the scene so clearly. I can, though. And I want to tell it, I do, but it’s like my hands just… stop working. Revert back to heavy, lifeless clay. Not this time, though. Come on, just get it out!)
At the threshold to the Field of Reeds my father asked a favor from Wepwawet. He had left behind a teenage daughter, you see, and he worried for her safety. She wasn’t a very good driver, for one, and was often scatterbrained or easily distracted. Would Wepwawet look out for her as she moved through the world, just to make sure she got home each night in one piece? He gave my name and Wepwawet must have smiled, maybe even said something like, “She’s already known to us,” and assured my father He would keep an eye on me. And He has ever since, though He’s probably had to save my butt more times than I can count and I’m sure it’s a stressful promise to keep. But they’re kindred souls, I can feel it, and every time I feel Wepwawet’s presence I feel my father’s as well and know I am doubly blessed.
[ Hey, I added a “dad stuff” tag if anyone’s interested ]