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
The Morrigan once showed me the landscape of my soul: lush fields and verdant woodlands crisscrossed by fences of wood and stone, unnatural boundaries where no demarcation should be. See how you have let others lay claim to your sovereignty? She said. See how your freedom has been divided up among them like plots of land after a conquest? And I did see. I never chose to parcel out my soul, I certainly never handed out deeds, yet neither did I retaliate when colonizers encroached. I merely shied away, yielding ground to avoid confrontation. Now I’ve barely any land left on which to make my stand. If you will not fight to reclaim your soul, the Morrigan warned, you will remain a puppet of others’ whims and desires for the rest of your life.
The war is bloody and exhausting. It’s dragged on for years with what feels to me like little progress. Yet when I falter, when I’m battleworn and losing ground, the Morrigan reminds me of how far I’ve come. Every clump of grass won back is precious, She says as She shows me that landscape again. Every inch of soil. Every rock. You will have it all back in time if you keep fighting. In this way wars are won. And so I keep fighting. I keep standing up for myself. I keep setting boundaries. Under the Morrigan’s stern guidance I keep winning back control over the land of my soul – inch by inch.
Look, I get it – I’m forgettable. It’s okay, really, it’s not like I’m trying to be memorable. I want the words to stick in your mind, not the person who recorded them. It’s just that these days if you want to sell something you create you have to sell yourself first. You gotta put yourself on display and win the masses’ affections before you win their interest. I don’t want to do that, though. I’m not a priestess dripping gold, I’m not an oracle tripping holiness, I’m just a scribe. I preserve; I don’t proclaim. I witness; I don’t wield authority. I was never meant for pomp and pageantry, that’s why I’m a scribe to the gods. Yet how else do I get people to listen to my words? I don’t need to be memorable, I don’t even need to be likable, but I need you to read my words. I need you to remember they exist if nothing else. So what do I have to do when the words aren’t enough to earn reader loyalty? Do I have to offer a pound of flesh along with them? An ounce of soul? Do I have to put on a pretty mask and play a part that isn’t mine just to get you to care about the words coming out its painted mouth?
Some rush into revenge, eager to mete out penance and collect their triumph, yet it’s important to learn all you can about your enemy first. You must observe his habits and patterns closely, not just to discover hidden flaws in his defenses but to best craft the manner of your vengeance. Though bloodshed has its merits, of course, not all retribution need be taken through steel and storm with death as the end goal. After all, the dead cannot suffer. The dead cannot experience shame or guilt or fear. Once you kill someone he is beyond the reach of your machinations. Why set him free so quickly?
No, once you have observed your enemy long enough you may come to realize that the best punishment is to simply leave him to his own devices. You may recognize what a lonely, craven worm he truly is, someone for whom death is a mercy or a martyrdom. Your grand efforts of elaborate revenge are quite frankly wasted on such a pathetic creature. All you really need to do is sit back and watch as he damns himself with his own choices over and over again, his remaining stock of allies dwindling until he is utterly alone. And that is how you leave your enemy – to waste his final years in the gutter, impotent and bitter, with no one to feed his lies or sorrows. There may be less blood that way but the prolonged suffering is well worth the trade-off, I assure you.
Anger is a gift, Inanna tells me. It keeps you moving when you want to give up. It keeps you fighting on the battlefield. It keeps you demanding better for yourself when everyone tells you to accept their scraps. Her rep lips peel back in a sneer to show sharp white canines. Your anger is a threat to them; that is why they try to take it from you. They trick you into feeling ashamed of it, or guilty for it. They call you selfish, arrogant, petulant. They dismiss you as a child and condemn you as a monster. I imagine the men who slandered Her priestesses as harlots, who twisted Her myths, who destroyed Her temples and named Her Whore of Babylon. Yet still Inanna persists, over five thousand years later, as powerful today as She was when She ruled an entire civilization. They will spout any lie to rob you of your righteous anger, She says, pressing one pointed nail to my chest, because they know they will fall before it like wheat before a scythe. Hold tight to your anger, child. Do not let it be taken from you, or turned back on you, or redirected to another more vulnerable. Your enemies are cowards who prefer the deceit of silver tongues to the honesty of steel swords. Believe nothing they say. Trust your anger to guide you rightly. Then She smiles, a grin full of hunger and destruction. And trust mine.
Imagine you are born to run with a pack
yet there is no other like you in all the universes.
Imagine you are born to sing songs with your kin
yet they muzzle you with a sword through your mouth.
Imagine you are born to run, the hunt burning in your veins
yet they bind your legs with unbreakable bonds.
Perhaps this is what they meant
when they said you were born this way:
that you were destined to become a monster
because they never intended any other option for you.
what a pink-fleshed thing I am
all soft meat and squinting eyes
flinching at every sudden sound
out in the world I am horribly exposed
clothes offer no comfort from others’ perception
buildings no shelter from the world’s ugliness
only in my home biome am I safe
armored by evergreens and blackberries
secure in my shelter of seawater and songbirds
yet as glaciers melt and wildfires rage
and every day the chainsaws close in
I feel the cracks in my shell spreading
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
at night the coyotes come creeping back
howl up the fresh ghosts of felled trees
from my bed I scream with them
Acute pain is a problem of the present but chronic pain is a problem of the future. If I go to this event, will the length of time give me a headache? Or the human interaction? The bad weather? What about the lack of accessible bathrooms or the food provided, will it give me a stomach ache? Will the physical exertion trigger my carpal tunnel syndrome? Will I be in so much pain that I want to go home early but can’t? And if so, will the pain be worth it or will I be too miserable to appreciate the experience? If I bail, though, will everyone be mad at me? Will I be a disappointment? Every future event and upcoming activity triggers the anxiety loop again: fear shame guilt, fear shame guilt, fear shame guilt, an endless repetition of dread for the future. And what does the anxiety even solve? Does the prevention of future pain guarantee an end to the pain? Unlikely. Does it even guarantee a lack of pain on the day of the missed event? Of course not. So what’s the point? Fear shame guilt. Fear shame guilt. Fear shame guilt. It solves nothing but you can’t break free.
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.
At night I’m visited by the three Ghosts of Friendship. The Ghost of Friendship Past arrives first in a form I know well, a friend whose absence remains an unhealed wound which aches most on long, textless weekends. Friendship Past brings me bittersweet dreams where we are best friends once more, no awkwardness or years of unexplained silences between us to dampen the laughter. I wake wondering what happened, why and where it all went wrong. Was I found lacking in some way?
The Ghost of Friendship Present shows up next, cycling through the guises of current friends who seem to be slipping through my clenched hands like fine sand. They spirit me from my bed to deliver us to parties where I’m not acknowledged, game nights where my presence is needed only to fill in for someone absent, group events where I am at best the tolerated tag-along. I wake angry at slights that never actually happened.
Finally the Ghost of Friendship Future appears, taking the form of someone who doesn’t even exist. It’s a face I know well, though; I’ve been watching the show for months, start to finish and back again, out of jealousy or perhaps just yearning. I confide in him that I wish his study group could be my friends as well; I don’t have a gang of my own anymore and I fear I never will again. Maybe fictional friend groups are all my future holds.
Unlike Scrooge, when I wake from this third and final visitation to a new dawn I do so without any real lessons imparted, no resolutions burning in my chest. Either the Ghosts of Friendship aren’t interested in redemption arcs or I’m not worth the effort. When they return the next night it’s just more of the same and I’m left to face the morning weighted Marley-style by chains I won’t acknowledge.
It was easier, ultimately
(than the knife and the heart)
to pick, pick, pick
at her flawless skin
(the forest and the hunter)
until it bled and scarred
bled and scarred
(the apple and the coffin)
and the mirror simply
stopped saying her name.
Every caged animal eventually goes mad. Desperate yet unable to escape, it starts burrowing inward, ripping out tufts of hair, chewing through its own flesh and bone as if freedom waits within. Was it so with you, o Great Wolf? Restrained by magic and betrayal, did captivity eventually warp your clever mind into wrath-fueled madness? Did your teeth like crescent moons tear chunks of meat from your bones in vain attempt to loosen those impossible bonds? A wolf must run free but Gleipnir leashed you to the earth like a common backyard mutt. A wolf must hunt and howl but the sword driven through your muzzle hindered you from sating your hunger or crying out your agony and loneliness. Whether you would have always grown from trusting pup to crazed, feral beast can hardly matter when your captivity made you one regardless. Yet what else did the gods expect when they imprisoned you? Every caged animal eventually goes mad and if given the chance to turn bloody jaws from gnawing its own flesh to rend the flesh of its captors, well… who can blame it for leaping at the opportunity?
sometimes I am the bowl
sometimes I am its absence
and sometimes I am venom
poured in secret upon visceral chains
hastening Ragnarok’s approach
Can I tell you a secret?
(Of course I can; I’m a writer.)
Sometimes when the hostile dead come
whispering their insidious lies
encroaching on my dreams
testing the limits of my strength
(and my stupidity)
I’m honestly just grateful
someone sought me out.
A childhood friend’s mother, dead from cancer since we were teenagers, smiles at me from the front door of an unfamiliar house. “It’s good to see you,” she says. “You’ve let go of all your protective camouflage from back then, especially that fake hair.” With the clarity that comes in dreams I understand she refers to things I did subconsciously as a child to protect myself from a wrath I often saw unleashed upon others. “Yeah, well…” I scuff my shoe on the gravel drive and flash her a wry smile. “Turns out there was a lot about my life back then that was fake.”
My eating disorder can’t hook me through conventional methods so instead it tries to get me through you. I don’t care about having a beach ready body but the possibility of getting this useless meatsuit even the least bit closer to looking like yours? Of being an adequate-enough vessel that you might consider inhabiting me, even if only for a moment, for an hour? Oh, that’s tempting. That’s an offer I find hard to refuse. My logical brain knows such a goal is impossible for my body – it will never be good enough for you, no matter how I cut and carve it down – but the disorder whispers from where it’s chained in the depths of my subconscious that maybe, just maybe, we can make it happen together. We should at least give it a shot, it purrs to me. Right?
I’m in that zone of total exhaustion and no fucks left to give, moon and planets dragging on my subconscious, I feel the slipping the fading the floating out of time and body that untethering of action from consequence that leaves me bold and dizzy swaying on the threshold yelling, Where are you, huh? Why the hiding? Why the silence? That’s not like you, boys, come on now! I’m calling Loki, Satan, Lucifer, Set, I’m calling Death and Desire, the fallen, the forgotten, I’m calling you up, I’m calling you out, Where are you? Come fucking get me, I’m fucking ready, you don’t scare me! and I know it’s a bad idea, you’ve burned me before for boldness, but I’ve always been that person who needs to touch something hot just to know what it feels like, I just gotta know for myself exactly how it’ll hurt and every time you burn me I learn something new from the pain and it makes all the scars worthwhile.
We are all fighting our own separate battles, says the Morrigan, but they are all part of the same great war. Then She cautions me, Don’t run from your battlefield in search of a fight you think is more important. How can you aid someone else in their battle if you haven’t even triumphed over your own yet? She’s right, I know She’s right, but I chafe at the waiting. For years now the Morrigan has been calling up Her warriors to wage war against the global evils of colonialism, capitalism, and fascism, and ever since I heard Her call over two years ago I’ve yearned to learn my role in Her army. It seems, though, that my assignment is still to wage the battles awaiting me on my homefront, to get my house in order before I truly become part of the Phantom Queen’s force. I’m not disappointed because I envision myself a warrior on the front lines, fighting for glory and a hero’s renown – I will happily serve in whatever capacity the Morrigan deems best for me, even if it’s on the sidelines. I’m just eager to help at all, and doing shadow work meant to reclaim my personal sovereignty just doesn’t feel like much immediate help to others. Whoever goes into battle without a clear head goes to their grave, my goddess chastises me as I brood, and I know my time in the Morrigan’s bootcamp is far from over.
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.
feel like i’m going crazy, i keep seeing absent ghosts everywhere, pseudo-specters, nothing-theres, whatever you want to call them, the empty spaces of missing trees that i could swear were there this morning but are gone now this evening, it’s like the city swallowed them whole while i wasn’t looking and left behind more vacancy, more vacuum, more v o i d . . .
or maybe there was never a tree right there in the first place and i’m just too obsessed with ecocide, maybe i’m going crazy from grieving all the trees i couldn’t spare the chainsaw, whole forests weighing on my conscience, i don’t know i just swear there was a tree in that space before and now there isn’t and i’m afraid that if i look away for too long there won’t be anything green left when i turn back
You cannibalize everything on Earth I value
so I cannibalize everything in myself you value.
You devour trees, swallow rivers
I abolish gender, rescind sexuality.
You consume precious resources
I deny you obedience.
You make the world
so I make myself
If you leave me nothing
I will give you nothing.
See? I can be a ravenous beast as well
but I won’t be the one that starves first.
Of course this body has never felt right – not because my gender identity clashes with its appearance, though, but because my body has never been a refuge. How could I recognize the discomfort of dysphoria when pain, anxiety, and exhaustion dominate my senses? How could I discern whether this disconnect between spirit and flesh is caused by a lack of gender or by all these years spent trapped in chronic illness? When it comes down to it, I’m not sure I’ll ever know whether I’m unhappy in my body because it looks “female” or because it has only ever been a burden requiring constant care. I can change my appearance all I want, slick back my short hair, cover my skin in tattoos, but that won’t stop the migraines or the stomach aches or the OCD. Even the clothing I wear is always half aesthetic and half will I be too warm in this or too cold, will it make me sweat too much and cause a panic attack, will this hat keep me from picking my scalp bloody or will it give me a headache instead? It’s always something; between the faulty wiring in my brain and all the other aching, breaking bits, I don’t really have tools sensitive enough to scan for undercurrents of dysphoria. My body’s never been a home and maybe it never will be, no matter what colors I paint the outside or what interior walls I tear down.
Here we are again, back at the annual attempt to jumpstart my inert heart. Summer’s smoke scorched it dry and now I must perform an autumnal resurrection with mummy’s dust and witch’s brews, guttering candles and rattling chains. Can I be honest, though, Ray? I’m tired. Bone tired. I can’t recall when last soft rains came to wet these gargoyle lips and set free the words frozen in stone. I don’t know if I have the strength left to whistle monsters home to roost on cathedral eaves. I feel like Mars long abandoned by native civilization and colonizers alike, just fifty-six million square miles of red sand and dust-covered ruins and the trash of a thousand forgotten generations. I feel like a barren rock hurtling through space that has never known a single Halloween. Yet the full harvest moon shines a bright gold coin in the sky on this equinox eve and I’m gonna try, Ray, I really am, though what kind of jack-o’-lantern tree will grow from soil this parched I do not know. But with your words as my witness, I’ll try.
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.
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 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?
no songs in the underworld
instead I listen
and learn the value of silence