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.
The solstice approaches and I consider the death of gods. I think of Inanna walking proudly through the underworld’s seven gates to her death on the meat hook, of Odin hanging nine days dead on the world tree and Christ laying three days dead in the tomb. I think of Osiris, Persephone, Proserpina, Dumuzi, Baldr. Of Aphrodite weeping over Adonis and Achilles weeping over Patroclus.
And then there is you, Lord Sun, fairest and most beloved. The solstice approaches, yet you do not drown me in dreams of blood or deafen me with your cacophonous wailing like past years. Your halls are silent, your rooms are empty, and I wonder why. Could it be that you go willingly to your death this time? Have you made some sort of peace with it like those other harvest gods destined for the slaughter, those deities who sacrificed themselves for wisdom or were punished for being too beautiful, too good?
Perhaps this solstice you will bow willingly to you fate, to the dying and the decay, the rot and the long rest. The wheel on which the world turns must be oiled in blood. Yet though the solstice relies on violence, that violence need not be fueled by hatred or ugliness. Death can be beautiful, a gift of mercy or love, and your death on the longest night drives the resurrection of your brother-lover and the fallow time of winter. Thus the Oak King bleeding out in his Holly King’s arms; thus you, Lord Sun, spilling out your shining golden blood in your beloved Moon’s arms.
Maybe this time we can focus on the beauty in your death, not the tragedy. What do you think?
All these tales about the moon killing the sun on the winter solstice, all these gruesome stories of betrayal and bloodshed on the longest night of the year… Did you never wonder why the sun seems to so easily succumb to his lover’s blade each year, knowing as he must when it will come for him? Why he has never chosen to break this cycle? It’s not because he can’t; it’s because he doesn’t want to. He needs me. He’s tried every other option, after all. Drugs, alcohol, nicotine; rope, blades, bullets; drowning, jumping, suffocating. Every method of suicide and every combination thereof. None of them work, you see, because fate long ago bound us together, I to be his killer and he to be mine. No matter how much he longs for death, I am the only one who can decide when and where he shall meet that end. So like a key into a lock, this is how it must be: my blade, his throat, our endless dance choreographed down to the last struggling heartbeat. It is a gift. One that no other can ever fully understand, true, but a gift nonetheless.
It was all there on the table. The candlestick. The rope. The lead pipe. The wrench. The knife. The gun. He trailed his fingertips along each weapon with veneration. Clue had always been his favorite board game. He loved the idea of giving six people unique opportunities to kill one another. When he played the game as a child he often concocted complex scenarios that resulted in the deaths of all six guests. He’d been sent to Sister Reverence’s office more times than he remembered. It was always the same.
“Young man, this is becoming habitual.”
Habitual. Habit. Like that stupid thing she wears everyday. It would be so easy to grab her by it and pull. Up, up, up. A widening grin. Until she turned purple, like that bitter chalice offered every morning.
(STOP TELLING IT. YOU’RE TELLING IT WRONG.)
Rain falls hard as hail in the night; in the heavy sky above lightning flickers and thunder sends shudders vibrating through the air. The guests enter the mansion beneath an arched front doorway over which is written, “Do not die before your death”. There are six of them, not including their absent host, and each carries a golden envelope in which the mysterious invitation sits.
Tanim arrives first, of course, in a navy blue suit over which he has draped a pale blue scarf with gold tassels. He bides his time by the fireplace, whiskey in hand, staring into the bright flames until another guest arrives. There are two this time, Bast and Wepwawet, both dressed in layers of desert silks and gold adornments. Wepwawet introduces himself as Anubis; Tanim does not comment on the deception. The three trade amicable conversation until Inanna arrives, her spools of red-gold hair commanding attention as they capture the firelight. Tanim nods to her in greeting and steps to the side, continuing his conversation with Wepwawet as the goddesses greet each other. Soon they are joined by the Morrigan, her blood-red dress offset by a gold collar draped across her clavicles. She is polite yet aloof until Mage swaggers in, almost unfashionably late though highly fashionable in her black leather and gold piercings, and then the two fall to discussing something gruesome. They could be sisters with their pale skin, black hair, and cold eyes.
Their host enters last of all, dressed in his customary black. Daren’s only concession to the formality of the occasion is a single gold ring on his left hand. He looks to each of the guests in turn, noting their placement in the room, their dress, their body language both before and after they notice him. “Now that you have all arrived,” he says once the conversations have ceased, “shall we begin? Come this way.” He turns and leads them across the wide marble-tiled hall and into the dining room. Exchanging glances that communicate a variety of emotions, his guests follow in silence.
THE DINING ROOM
The long table is set for seven, three seats on each long side and the seventh at the head. Crystal and polished silver gleam amid candlelight, the china white as bone. Upon each dinnerplate is a weapon: a candlestick; a rope tied into a noose; a lead pipe; a wrench; a knife; and a handgun. The seventh is empty. Daren stands behind the empty seventh seat and rests his hands on the back of the chair. “I assume you know why I’ve called you all here,” he begins, “and thus will not waste time with explanations. Every window and exterior door in the house is locked, save for a single window – though I would be careful, I imagine the roof is quite treacherous right now. There are six weapons and seven of us. You have two hours.” He gestures to the table’s deadly spread. “Good luck.”
Wepwawet stands in the center of the observatory, watching the raindrops light up in silver strands every time lightning cracks across the sky. Inanna enters, bearing the lead pipe, and approaches him from behind. “Do you know why I’m here?” she asks. Wepwawet smiles, neither surprised nor concerned at her presence. “Because you came,” he replies, turning to face her. He stretches out both of his arms, kneeling down on one knee, and lowers his head reverently. Then he then raises his head again and looks up at her, his dark eyes filled with a humble peace, and says, “As you will, Queen.” Inanna nods once. She strikes him across the jaw with the lead pipe; the sound of his neck cracking echoes through the room. She then kneels down beside the god’s prostrate body and caresses one slack cheek. “The Duat has missed you,” she murmurs. As she walks away, his body turns to gold and drifts away on a wind that does not stir her hair.
The warm glow of antique light bulbs is reflected by a myriad antique mirrors and the polished wood panels in between. In one corner a piano plays Moonlight Sonata, though no one sits at its bench to press the keys. No one dances with Inanna, either, and yet her raised arms and twirling form suggest an unseen partner. So does the way she suddenly stumbles back, a hand clasped to her red cheek as if she’s been struck. She glares up through the hair fallen into her eyes and hisses, “How dare you defy me!” In response, something throws her backward as easily as a discarded toy; she crashes into the piano with a discordant shriek of keys, scattering bits of polished wood and ivory across the marble floor. She lays unconscious in the wreckage of the instrument as red blood trickles along the curls of her fiery hair. Above her the wrench floats for a moment before something brings it crashing down on her temple. Once the golden ashes of her body have drifted away, all that remains in the middle of the broken piano is the rusty wrench.
THE BILLIARD ROOM
Daren finds Mage in the billiard room, sitting cross-legged atop the pool table with a drink in hand. She doesn’t seem particularly concerned about the knife in his hand even though she does not have a weapon herself, unless you count the 8-ball she rolls back and forth across the felt. She cocks her head as he comes to stand in front of her, her green eyes to his black. She asks, “Do you think it will work? Will you learn what it is you wish to learn?” and he nods. “I’m confident I will, yes.” And then he sinks the dagger deep into Mage’s right thigh, moving so fast she doesn’t even have time to retaliate before he pulls away. The dagger stays behind.
“Motherfucker!” Mage bites back a grunt of pain as she grips the dagger’s hilt. “I knew you were going to do that.” Daren only gives her his ghost of a smile and leaves. Mage downs the last of her drink, briefly considers pouring another but decides she doesn’t have the time, then yanks the dagger out and begins cutting strips of cloth from her pants for bandages. When she has staunched the worst of the bleeding and can put at least some weight on the leg she grabs the dagger and goes in search of the single open window. She is just passing into the hallway when every light in the house extinguishes at the same moment, plunging the labyrinth of rooms and hallways into darkness. Her swearing is hushed but prolific.
Bast is in the library, perusing the shelves of leather-bound books, when the lights go out. Firelight catches her eye and she turns to see the Morrigan walking in, a tall white candle set in the candlestick she bears. Its flickering flame is the only light in the room. “What happened to the lights?” she asks. The Morrigan removes the candle from its holder and approaches. “Here,” she offers, proffering the light. Bast accepts it with a nod and returns back to the books. Behind her the Morrigan raises the candlestick and whispers, “The weight of the world,” before striking Bast in the back of the skull. The goddess collapses to the carpet and lays unmoving in a widening pool of blood. Then her body begins to glow, transforming into something like golden ash, and then the ashes blow away as if by a strange wind.
The Morrigan never sees her killer. She has found her way through the darkness to the cellar where she searches now along the cool walls for the circuit breaker. She cannot see the two hands which appear out of the darkness behind her, nor are they accompanied by any sound of footsteps or breathing. Between them they hold a length of the untied rope taut. Just as she locates the circuit breaker the hands bring the rope down over her head and pull it tight around her neck. The goddess struggles against her assailant, nails scrabbling at the thick rope, but to no avail; her vision flashes with brilliant fireworks of pain as she runs out of oxygen. Once she ceases fighting and goes limp, the hands let her fall to the cement floor. After a moment her body turns to gold ashes which blow up and away.
Tanim stands in the doorway to the study, the gun lowered at his side. Across the room Daren stares into the fireplace, his form silhouetted by the red glow of the coals; these shed the only light left in the tomb-like mansion, just as these two men are the only living things left in it. He does not move as Tanim approaches, nor when the man stops a few feet behind him. Instead he merely asks, “Is it done?”
“Yes,” Tanim raises the gun to the back of his lover’s head. “Are you satisfied with the state of things?”
“Almost,” Daren strikes just as lightning illuminates the room for one stark, white second, its attendant thunder a cacophony all around them. With one arm he pushes Tanim’s out of the way so the shot goes wide; with his other he sinks the dagger deep into Tanim’s chest. Darkness reclaims the room and the two men fall still. Then the gun falls from Tanim’s limp hand and with a folding of his knees he follows it soon after, collapsing on his back as a red stain blooms about the hilt of the blade still lodged in his chest. Daren kneels at his side and smooths the hair from his face. “Now I am,” he says softly. “Goodnight, brother.”
A dark stage. Tanim stares down into the glass in his hand, gives the amber liquid an idle swirl while I sought you in the last sip of laudanum, he muses aloud. From the darkness behind him, the snik snik and spark of a lighter. The flame catches, burns a small spot in the darkness to reveal Daren as he lights the cigarette poised on his lips, closes the lighter with a metallic snap. Tanim, oblivious, continues. I sought you in brothels and fight rings, and Daren, pacing, wreathed in smoke, they say madness is repeating the same action yet expecting a different result. I sought you nightly like a man possessed, Tanim finishes the drink in one long swallow, as if parched, yet you evaded me. That is not quite true, however. Tanim lifts his head, eyes searching, seeing nothing. The hand holding his glass shakes slightly less than his voice. I prayed to you; you did not reply. I prostrated myself before you; you turned your back. I courted you like a lover and yet you denied me time and time again. Daren drops the cigarette, madness is repeating the same action despite knowing you shall never produce a different result, leaves it burning in the background while he moves closer. I loved you most dearly of all hence we enter this dance again yet you are fickle, o death not because we hope to change the ending and I have winced in the light of so many unwanted dawns but because we know we cannot. Tanim, with a sigh, Can this be the end now? Can I be done? Come, fifth sword, and cut down this hanging man. I am so tired. Daren steps into the candlelight, lays a gentle hand on his jaw. Hello, brother, softly. Did I keep you waiting overlong? Tanim’s weak smile, oh sweet relief, oh final mercy. Never. They kiss. The gleam of the blade in Daren’s hand is the last movement seen before the stage goes completely dark. The glass hits the floor, shatters. The cigarette burns itself out.
Every solstice someone dies. On the summer solstice, the Moon; on the winter solstice, the Sun. Each time is different, yet each time is the same. I spend the weeks leading up to the solstice imagining death after death, murder after murder, seeking the scene that will be chosen for this iteration. Will it be suicide or fratricide – premeditated or a crime of passion? Will it involve a gun or a knife, poison or illness, violence or mercy? The Moon prefers small, sharp things that bleed his lover out slowly, while the Sun prefers to leave bullet holes or bruises on pale skin. And where will it take place? In bed, where they are most vulnerable? The alley, hidden within a curtain of pouring rain? Or on the roof, with all the dark city laid out below as witness? I cannot yet say for sure. Right now all I feel is the thin blade in my hand and all I see is the night sky reflected in his unfocused eyes.
The longest night is one of blood and death, but there are many ways to die. The longest night is one of sin and a falling from grace, but there are many ways to fall. Bodies entwined, limbs twist and clutch; fingers dig crescent moons into sweaty flesh; teeth nip and graze and sink deep to leave possessive bruises. Lips seek the source of heat and longing, eager for union, for submission, for the chance to worship on bended knee. In this moment there is nothing but the joining of flesh and spirit, no love or desire greater than that which brings two together in the ancient rhythm of skin against skin. Thus wordlessly, amid only gasps and groans and the erratic cacophony of competing heartbeats, they melt with the heat of the sun and move with the pull of the moon. Entwined, they share the climax which washes over them with a shuddering force, a giving and receiving, a taking and leaving. The longest night is one of death, but tonight it is the little death, and they both partake.
It starts in an unfamiliar city, a maze of empty streets and gaping alleys and the sick yellow of dying streetlights. As he walks he can sense the presence pacing him, never close enough to glimpse in the darkness yet never far enough to lose track. He does not quicken his pace, only casually slips hands into pockets to grip the switchblade’s cool metal. He knows better than to run from a predator of any species – and has no intention of becoming anything’s prey. As he walks, trees begin to appear along the road and alleys, the leafless skeletons of deep winter. Snow begins to collect along the pavement and black branches; soon it covers the ground and drifts lazily from the sky. His feet crunch as they break through the top layer of ice. Still he walks, and still the presence keeps pace, its own footsteps silent. With a slow and subtle motion he removes his hands from his pockets, the knife hidden inside the cradle of his fingers.
Eventually the buildings are left behind and the forest becomes the landscape, bare trees and snow covered earth stretching into darkness in all directions. In the way of dreams, the streetlights continue in an unbroken line, their weak light offering only enough illumination to pass through the treacherous landscape safely. He follows the path of the lights as if in search of their destination, but all of his senses are focused on the creature moving out in the darkness. He can hear faint breathing now, coming first from his left, then his right, then behind and ahead. Whatever follows him moves through the thick snow with practiced ease. It is fast, he thinks. Is he faster?
A low growl rumbles in a throat too close for his comfort and he comes to a stop beneath one of the anachronistic streetlights. The cone of light flattens the surrounding shadows into a two-dimensional wall, but sight isn’t the sense he relies on now; instead, he closes his eyes and strains for any sound beyond the soft hush of falling snow and the last notes of the growl. There is only silence… silence… silence… and then the nearly inaudible sound of a foot depressing the snowpack. Eyes snapping open as quickly as the blade in his hand, he whirls toward the sound and brings the knife up just as a hulking black wolf leaps from the darkness. For a moment they are almost one, man and wolf, white teeth descending and silver blade rising…
…and then the moment passes and they are falling past each other to collapse on opposite ends of the circle of light. Bleeding from long scratches to his face, neck, and shoulder, he stumbles to his feet and turns, blooded blade raised to ward off the next attack. But the next attack does not come, and will not. Across the circle, disturbed snow turns black-red around the unmoving body of the wolf and the beast’s thick fur masks the gash with which the sharp little blade felled its foe. Seeing the hunter turned slain prey, he sinks in exhaustion to his knees once more in the snow. Overhead, the streetlights wink out one by one.
– – – –
Daren woke with the sharp awareness of someone used to assuming danger’s nearness. He lay still for a few seconds, letting his senses process and report the all clear. His hands felt strange and he flexed them, noting his right gripped the knife kept always beside the bed. When he touched the fingertips of his left together he felt the tacky wetness of drying blood. Only now did he turn his head to the warm weight curled beneath the blankets at his side. Tanim lay motionless as if in a deep sleep.
[ And so another solstice passes. ]