Please distribute far and wide
This wonderful piece by Indira Ganeson…says it all.
Last night the trees were covered in such white snow, that it felt like I chanced upon a fantasy, a world like Narnia, say.
It is Neptune’s blizzard now, shaking yesterday’s snow off the limbs, scattering the snow sideways.
My neighbor’s shingled wall looks like it’s dusted with powdered sugar. The power comes and goes, like the women
and Michelangelo, and the wind howls and howls. Blizzards in the daytime are of course easier to take than at night,
when the snow offers serenity in moments of quiet. The cats are curled up, asleep, in separate corners; they have
been antsy with
each other, picking fights, and I blame the lack of fresh air ( drafts don’t count.)
But of course, drafts do count, and my novel is a mess, as I rethink so much of the dialogue ( needed?) and action
( necessary?). Piles of essays and stories and other…
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Pryderi ap Pwyll was brought up carefully and when Pwyll died,
Pryderi ruled the seven cantrevs of Dyfed and they were prosperous.
A gannet glides above the cantrevs of Dyfed. Curled away from sea air by some upheaval, it twitches its wings then banks back toward salt spray.
Rhiannon watches the gannet from her bed of insipid coldness. She is alone, wasted in thought, in the strong grip of years, dragging violently toward the days of grayness. The moonstone round her neck has dulled. Her skin is faded. Her snow-white hair transparent and thin.
The White Night Mare refuses to visit her dreams. No longer will she allow the White Lady to visit her nest or mount her. She disdains the crimson apples Rhiannon offers and will not let Rhiannon nuzzle her or stroke her back and forehead and flanks. When Rhiannon tries to catch her, the mare rears and screams and canters away. The White Lady has become human and leaden. It’s been too long since she left the Otherworld orchard. Abandoned her father Heveydd for love of a mortal chieftain and birthed a mortal child.
Rhiannon thinks of Pwyll’s death, weeps at a new angle, then ponders her own end. A strange notion, for death never ventured into the orchard where she was born.
Where there is no autumn and winter,
when Heveydd sat beneath a tree
and a dandruff entered his eye.
One tear and then another.
Two saltwater beads fell on his knees.
The third was a pearl.
He caught the iridescent droplet
in his palm and blew on it.
It grew to the size of an owl’s egg.
He hooted to it.
Owl’s song, dog’s rough ditty, serpent’s tune,
anthem of hart, badger’s lyric, hare’s vibration,
whale’s chanty and madrigal of horse,
until it was padded in infinite music.
Then Heveydd tucked the pearl
into the lair of the White Night Mare and there
Rhiannon incubated, hatched and nested.
Pissed pearls and cried pearls
and the milk she sucked from the Night Mare’s teats
was the juice of pearls, too.
In the mortal world,
dissolved into water
like that of ordinary women.
Who am I now? Rhiannon wonders. Not an oyster for all my pearls. Neither new velvet nor bumpy spring. Neither am I appetite, aphrodisiac and allure. The alabaster has cracked and puckered. And Pwyll, who loved me even as I aged, is gone.
She lies on her bed, dripping. Tears soak her stretched and sagging body. She squeezes her eyes. Two pearls pop out and flick her chin.
She leaves her bed, dressed all in black. She walks toward the seacliffs of Dyfed. She leaves her herds. She leaves her son and his young wife. She walks away from the Caer of Narberth, never glancing at the mound, leaving a trail of pearls. And the loyal wrens — who had come with her from the orchard and stayed through the long years and comforted Rhiannon in her anxiety — follow, warbling above her head.
She stands on a cliff and pearls tumble down her cheeks. They ricochet on the rocks, swirl into an eddy on the beach, and are drawn by tide into the sea. “No regret,” she reminds herself, “I made my choice and lived happy with Pwyll.”
But her weeping grows fiercer, until she’s howling like an ocean storm. The waves rise to meet her wails and whirl into winds that whip her gown. The black veil slaps her face.
The stream of pearls widens into a river that cuts through the cliff. The glittering white orbs spread over reefs and vault over surf and dance with maelstroms, moving west until they catch first the ear and then the eye of Manannann mac Lir.
* * *
The sea god patrols the island of Eriu in his curach and wherever he imagines the boat to go, so it goes. He makes a mist of his breath to shroud the island from Fomorii invaders.
He hears a mournful song in the distance and wonders if dolphins or selkies have lost a loved one. Then, banging. Like hailstones on drums, beating the hard wicker of his little boat.
Manannann looks down and the curach is trapped in a tangle of pearls. He scoops a handful. He bites one. He glances around and sees no one, but in the east there’s a storm. Who but he can create such a squall?
He whistles, and his horses, who can run on foam or on land, rise out of the water, pulling a golden chariot. He jumps into the cart and clicks his tongue. Horses and god streak over the war cries of the strong-haired sea and over the tempest of green waves and over the jaws of the wondrous and bitter ocean to the coast of Dyfed.
Manannann stops short of the beach. He floats on white caps, watching. A woman stands on the cliffs. Weeping pearls. She is the source of this deluge. He rocks with the swells, spying on her through fog, and when the wind snatches the veil from her head, he reaches with his long arm and grabs the black cloth in mid-air, then swims to shore for a closer look.
Manannann mac Lir gazes at Rhiannon, eyes limp with love and recognition.
“I have never seen a more wonderful woman, so endowed, inside and out,” he says, materializing beside her and handing her the sopping veil.
Rhiannon nods in thanks and moves. She savors her solitude. She could not care less who he is, where he came from or what he might want.
“Wait!” the sea god implores. Long ago, Pwyll had called on her to hold still, but she made him cool his heels, until he found the right words with which to summon her. No such courtship games will ever interest her again.
His pale skin is blue where Earth’s dappled sunlight pinches it. He is long and thin, graceful on sea and in ethers, but not on land. Manannann mac Lir leaps through damp air and dandles in front of her. She turns around and there he is. She turns again. He is there. She cannot escape.
“You are a pearl, even as you weep pearls,” he says. “You are the brightest, most beautiful creature in This world or the Other.”
“Wipe the sea water from your eyes, lad,” she snaps. “And step aside!”
“What?” He is taken aback by her impudence. “I am Manannann, king of the sea.” He glowers at her, full of the pride of rank. But he is softened by love. It has been millennia since he first saw her, glorious upon the White Night Mare, and, because he comes from the Land of Promise, he sees her that way still. She is earth and sky. He is sea and sky, and he must have her for his queen. He throws his shoulders back to exhibit his tough, scaly chest.
“Come with me to Tir Tairnigiri.” He opens his arms to welcome her, and when she steps back, annoyed, he considers sweeping her into his cloak, the cloak that can catch all the colors in the world.
“I do not answer abrupt questions from boys, even noble and handsome ones like you,” she snarls, while the wrens chatter and scold him. She wishes she had her mettlesome mare to carry her off, but her magic is finished.
“No, it’s not finished,” Manannann says, reading her thoughts. “You’ve bewitched me and that is difficult to do, for I am a god of tricks.”
“You are a bag of jokes,” she says. “Now please, please leave me alone. Let me be. I am old. I’m not flattered.” She has work to do. She must discover a future, a way to be aged and alone when her new partner, grief, has finally burned itself out.
“You are not old!” Manannann is shocked at the very idea. “You’re like me. You can never be old! How can you, who sucked the White Mare’s teat, suck up this human absurdity?”
No more able to resist his impulses than the tide can resist the moon, he pulls at her belt to bring her to him. Rhiannon balks. If he does not leave soon, she’ll explode. He has raised her temper from the place where it was buried long ago, where it rested unkindled in the serenity of her years with Pwyll, after their son returned.
And this surprising reappearance of her mare’s fire begins to interest her.
“I am about to be a grandmother,” she announces grandly.
“Oh, well,” he replies. “I am grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather to many. Come to Tir Tairnigiri and see.”
“Have you no pity?” Rhiannon replies and the pearls bubble up in her eyes again. “Go back where you came from.”
He smiles and stands his ground, although, in his white-bronze, webbed sea-shoes, he teeters a bit. Rhiannon, whose own feet are hard as hooves and solidly laid, suppresses the urge to laugh.
“I am decrepit and exhausted at having to remind you of that fact. I am human, Manannann. I gave up immortality and youth for Pwyll. Soon I will die.”
“You are wrong! You will never die. Your age is delusion. Time hangs in the mortal world like dark clouds about to rain. But in our world, time curls like a serpent biting its tail. You can’t unbind your origins. Surrender, Rhiannon!” and with that enthusiasm, he wobbles wildly and nearly topples.
“What are these pearls, if not proof of your Otherworldliness?” he asks, regaining his balance.
“They are a fluke and an evil reminder of my pain, probably sent by my angry father.”
“Nonsense! Pwyll has died and you are released to return to us. Come with me and you’ll see that the youth you think you’ve lost is not gone.” He leans closer. “With me you’ll be happier than you have ever been. Forever.”
Rhiannon sighs. She has only to look in a glass to know that the choice she made is final. “This is cruel teasing,” she says, “and you are a heartless, upstart child, o mighty king of the sea.”
She sits on a rock and cups her head in her hands. Pearls sprint from her eyes. “Go away,” she blubbers. “Go away.”
Instead of going away, he blathers on and on, pacing like a penguin, waving his reedy arms, sketching pictures on the clouds to illustrate his home: gleaming turrets and towers of high-polished shell, flocks of lapis angel fish shepherded by mermaids, mermen warriors with sharks for steeds, ivory unicorn whales, unfathomably graceful orange coral reefs, undulating forests of turquoise algae, the richness and underwater magnificence of his kingdom.
She is reminded of the orchard in the Otherworld under the mound and unsure whether his pictures of that Otherworld perfection make her nostalgic or claustrophobic. Her stomach twists when he offers his home to her and more. She is quiet. She has decided to be patient as a clod of earth, hoping he’ll wear himself out.
He cups water in his palm to make a mirror. Here is her face, young as apple blossoms. “You see,” he says, “you never changed.” She smashes his hands with her fist and the water shatters. He reaches for her.
“How dare you take such liberties with an old and widowed woman?” she shrieks. “How dare you behave like this to the Queen of Dyfed!”
“No longer, for your son is king and he has a new queen.”
“Yes,” she sighs. “I am displaced.”
He laughs. “Not in Tir Tairnigiri! If I can give you now a gift of your own choosing, will you at least come with me to see my land and sleep with me one night?”
“What I want, you cannot do,” she says, trying to think quickly of a task that might finally get rid of him.
“I can do anything,” Manannann brags.
“Then build me a circle of high, broad standing stones in honor of my husband, Pwyll. And within the circle, embed a sheaf of wheat in a lodestone, that my son’s land will thrive, always abundant. Then I will go with you.”
“Done!” he shouts. And from his waist he pulls a bag made of crane skin. He empties it and outlines a circle of silver net, starfish and spirit catchers made of clams. He roars like a breaker smashing against rock and shakes his cloak.
“There! You have your wish, Rhiannon. Come, let us go now!”
The monument to Pwyll is more eloquent than Rhiannon could ever have envisaged. She blinks at Manannann, who grins proudly. She weeps again. She makes a pail of her skirt to catch the pearls, to offer them to her husband’s memory.
She shuffles slowly toward the circle, pearls clattering in her gown. The wrens hop from one upright stone to the next, then dive toward the wheat sheaf, pluck it up and suddenly, the structure shudders and wavers, melts and turns to pond.
“You liar!” Rhiannon spins to face the sea god. “You would not know water from wood or a goat from a flounder, or corn from a kipper, or a peach from a prawn! You created an hallucination to fool me into going with you. Get out! You have no hold on me!”
“There is nothing I can’t do,” Manannann sniffs. “Let me try again. If it hadn’t been for those birds of yours…” and he takes a little bow and arrow from his crane bag and points them at Rhiannon’s wrens.
“You can’t kill them,” Rhiannon says, calmly, but she is not at all certain whether they may have become as mortal as she. Yet how have they hung about these many years?
“All right. I give you leave to try again,” Rhiannon says, truly curious now as to what and who she has become, what and who she might still be and why, indeed, her fluids are once again pearls.
“Build the stone circle as strong and real as Pwyll, do it right this time, and I will go with you to Tir Tairnigiri.”
“Do you swear?” Manannann asks.
“I do,” she replies, “but I’m safe, for I’m sure that you, with your ocean conjuring and sea chicanery, cannot ever make a solid thing.”
Rhiannon collapses on her rock and wraps the black veil, starched with salt, tight around her head. She stares listlessly at the horizon, mapping the flight of the gannet. She dreams of Pwyll. She wishes death would take her, too. Take her to him.
* * *
To his surprise, Manannann is uncertain whether he can satisfy the request of this female caught between mortality and eternity. He, whose moods mimic sea changes — who has seduced many a human woman and sired many a half-human child (and saved many a human warrior with his marvelous sword, The Answerer) — has never been so determined, desirous or insecure. He is enamored and glamoured by Rhiannon. He would perform any task in exchange for the White Lady’s caresses, to win her affectionate murmurs. If it is standing stones she wants, he will find them and bring them and make a monument to that precious dead husband of hers.
There is nothing he won’t do, Manannann announces to himself. But how will he do this?
The sea king is drying out. Desiccating. He is itchy and thirsty under the Earth sky. He cannot tolerate land for long. He rushes to the ocean and flops into the water. Relief. He calls his curach, climbs in and sits, bobbing and thinking, chin on knees. She has dissolved his illusion and would surely uncover another trick. Even if he could work true stone — which he cannot, because rock is alien and too heavy for his sea body or any sea magic — there are no stones in Dyfed large enough for the megalith Rhiannon requires.
Hours pass. Rhiannon languishes, staring at the sky, ignoring him, confident that he will fail. Failure is unbearable to him. A sea mew lands on Manannann’s head and scratches it for him. He thinks and thinks and his thoughts call up four nymphs who croon:
Come with us, Manannann mac Lir, and you will obtain your mind’s design.
He spreads his cloak into wings and lifts off the little boat. Skimming billows, inhaling spume, he follows the nymphs until they come to Eriu, where they dip through Manannann’s protective shroud of mist. The nymphs lead the sea king across meadows, along winding rivers and sparkling fields of cowslip to another shore, then over another chilly sea to the Island of Tory, to the foot of a mountain.
And in the shafts of that mountain, sixty Fomorii snore upon sixty stone slabs.
Manannann is dizzy and flaking. If ever there was a trial, this is it. He has gone farther inland than he has ever been. The nymphs disappear and Manannann roosts on a rock, splashing himself with dew, thinking, thinking, devising a way to get the Fomorii and their stones back to Dyfed. No Fomor will travel unless there’s some enticement: delectable De Danann blood or the shiny slather of jewels. Manannann thinks and thinks, wrapped round with his cloak, thinking until his brain conjures three geese, who nip at his ankles and rasp:
Come with us, Manannann mac Lir, and you will obtain your mind’s design.
Manannann waddles slowly behind the geese, tottering in his white-bronze, webbed sea-shoes. Now they fly; now they tramp across grasses and fragrant heather, slipping up hillock, down dale, to the end of the Rainbow, where the geese leave him beside a cavern that plunges away, away, below the sea, in the hot bowels of the Earth. Manannann is horrified. He has visited the hollows of the Daghda, but he has never been this deep in dirt. He coughs and chokes and fights for air. His fish flesh sweats. His throat clenches around the stench of sulfur.
In the cave, in the smoky dark, with stinging eyes, Manannann passes chamber after chamber, each containing a thousand golden pots brimming with jewels. He stumbles on, terrified, until his fear of tunnels gives birth at last to two blind moles, glowing like candles, who troll with their tiny teeth at his cloak and squeak:
Come with us, Manannann mac Lir, and you will obtain your mind’s design.
Trembling and tripping, Manannann, brave king of the sea, follows the moles through gruesome galleries and caliginous corridors until they come to the Hall of Priceless Illusion, where Manannann seizes a handful of treasure and comes up empty-handed.
And this is truly a wonder, for even the master of deception has been duped. He unknots the crane-skin bag on his belt. He reaches into it, and pulls out an illusion, then piles illusion upon illusion, until he has a portable mirage.
Back again he toils, through tunnels and out of the mountain, goose-stepping back across the grasses and meadows, flying along rivers and across estuaries, back to the foot of the mountain of the Fomorii, where Manannann hangs a pot of jewels on the precipice above their door.
When they awaken, the one-eyed behemoths drool and scutter and fall over and under and into one another, reaching for the unreachable riches, foregoing their breakfasts of fresh faerie babes, just for a taste of this wealth.
From his perch in a tree, Manannann calls to the brutes and offers them the jewels, if only they’ll bring their stone beds and follow him.
He carries the fanciful gems, down hillock, up dale and across fragrant fields, while the sixty Fomorii stamp on their single legs behind him, stone slabs strapped to their hairy chests.
They reach the chilly sea, where, with a wheeze of gratitude, Manannann swims into his element, and the Fomorii follow, rowing their rocks with their arms across the waves to the shore where Rhiannon sits and broods.
Manannann soars above the giants’ heads, dangling the Priceless Illusion like turnips before mules, the prize for placing one dolmen upon two, posts and lintels balanced into arches conjunct with constellations. And within the outer circle, they place a smaller one, and within that, a third round, until all the stones are upright and secured.
Then he shakes the Priceless Illusion before the sixty behemoths and leads them back to the sea. He leads them along awhile from his curach to a sound where the water yawns deeper than the hugest Fomor is high. They paddle and kick their single legs, scudding and spattering after the fast-evaporating treasure, but without their slab barges, the Fomorii drown halfway home to Tory.
Manannann returns to his palace. He dresses in his invulnerable armor with his invincible sword, The Answerer. He carries his helmet under one arm and with the other, he drags a lodestone from the sea floor and hauls it all the long, panting way to the center of the stone circle. Laboring mightily, without the magic of his crane-skin bag, he presses The Answerer flat into the lodestone to make an indentation. He places a wheat sheaf in the cavity shaped like his sword. He pours salt from his helmet onto the wheat and thaws it with hot breath, then cools it with cold breath, until it dries to a crystal sheen.
He floats to Rhiannon and stands in front of her. “My lady,” he says softly. She looks up, pleased that he is at least respectful.
“See there,” he says, pointing. “Your circle. Go test it. Set your birds on it. It is solid. Rock that will never crumble and within it, encased in thick glass, is the wheat sheaf for abundance.”
Rhiannon rises. Cautious, not to be fooled again. But she fills her black veil with blue pebbles from the beach and pearls from her eyes. She rubs against each stone, like a horse against a scratching post. The birds fly round and round. They peck at the sheaf. They cannot move it. Rhiannon strolls through the circles, spreading white pearls and blue pebbles in a spiral. Pearls and pebbles hum, infinite music that blends earth and sky, sea and sky. She chants poems to Pwyll and blessings upon the Earth. She scratches an ogham into the lodestone.
Manannann watches with unfamiliar patience until her grief and brief mortal happiness are etched into the monument. The wrens perch on her shoulders and she speaks to them in whispers. She leaves them in the circle to wait for her and guard it.
Then Rhiannon walks to Manannann,
stripping her mourning garments as she goes.
She takes his hand and walks with him into the sea.
Waist-high in water, she wraps her legs
around Manannann mac Lir.
The sea god enters her murky chasm.
Thus attached, they are propelled farther and farther
into the ocean that hollowed the land
where she once dwelled.
They sink down and down.
He plants his salty seed in her.
Her skin shimmers like pearls.
Mortal age washes from her filmy face.
Empress of Tides,
The White Lady of the White Night Mare
mounts a sea horse
and rides with Manannann mac Lir
into Tir Tairnigiri,
the shadowy Land of Promise,
somewhere between the shores of Dyfed and Eriu.
And there, she’s called Fand, Pearl of Beauty.
Niamh waits at Tir na n’Og. Twenty years in the human world is half an hour in the Other. A century passes in a night of lovemaking.
Niamh’s wait is long and brief. Sure enough, the white steed materializes. The horse on which her man, Oisin, left her, its saddle girth loose and swaying. The horse nudges her arm. She embraces its neck.
She consults no one. She offers no farewells. She buckles the saddle. She swings onto it. She turns the horse back the way it came.
A doe watches as Niamh rides from the Country of the Young, lightly gripping her ringing bridle, cloudless eyes fixed straight ahead, riding up from the place where she was born when time began, the country she has left only once before, when she fetched Oisin to love her.
The doe follows Niamh past the emerald sea through blue and silver mists. Over meadows that bloom without end, along a path of crystal cobbles lined with velvet ferns and trees drooping with abundance. A willow catches Niamh’s hair and tugs as if to hold her in the safety of the Sidhe.
This is not the route Oisin took out of Tir na n’Og. In that moment, the white steed splashed through the foam and flew up and over the faerie palaces with their bright sun bowers and lime-white walls that dance on the surface of the sea. Niamh, whose heart is unhindered by time, travels gradually.
The path rises. The doe bounds along the steep slope. She stops at the frontier between the worlds, where the eternal balm of Tir na n’Og turns to earthly winter and frost bends the trees. Her eyes fill with sorrow and envy, but she will go no farther.
Niamh crosses the border and wraps her silken mantle close about her shoulders. She knows nothing of seasons. She wonders how Oisin fares in this cold world. An unsettled man. Dispassionate, until the songs glimmer from his harp. He is fleet and shy and gentle and homesick.
Dry leaves crunch on heaved, hard ground beneath the white steed’s shoes. A magpie screams and snow falls. It is easy to be invisible in this harsh gloom. Why did Oisin mac Fionn return to this vale of death and decay despite Niamh’s warning?
* * *
An old, old man sits in a monastery cell. Wind cruises through cracks in stone walls. He is blind and his joints creak when he shifts on the hard bench where he has been sitting since the people brought him here when he fell from the white steed.
His faerie garments, torc of gold, silver cloak of satin and red-gold leather armor, drape like dead skin on his emaciated body. His toes clench his oversized boots.
The old man’s clothing grows larger as his thoughts contract. He will enjoy this silence until Patrick returns with more entreaties to embrace a solitary god, a god all folk in Ireland now seem to follow, a possessive deity who broaches no companions, razes the forests and claims the sun and moon and will not feast with Fionn mac Cumhall and the men of the Fianna or honor them with riches.
Had not Patrick bade his scribes write the old man’s songs of the heroes’ deeds in this world and the Other? Does he not listen enrapt, begging like a child for more and more tales?
Why then has the monk not understood that the Fianna, free men of the wild, who refused no one in need, sought always to destroy tyrants and invaders?
“Truth was in our hearts, and strength in our arms and fulfillment in our tongues,” the old man tells Patrick.
“A god who would confine generous Fionn to suffering in a pit of fire because Fionn had never known or heard of him?” The old man is astonished. “Were your god in bonds, Fionn would fight to free him. Fionn left none in pain or danger.”
The old man drifts. Roman Patrick’s arguments cannot restrain the flood of nostalgia and regret for another world, stories that are his own, with which he will not entertain the monk. The picture of a mute, naked boy takes shape behind his eyes:
The boy played beside a stream while his mother drank. Baying and barking and shouting closed all around. His mother bolted into the bushes. The boy shinnied up a tree. From his high perch, he searched for her, afraid to find her torn to pieces by hunting dogs. But she was gone and the dogs whined and scratched the tree trunk.
A man called and coaxed. At last, the boy, sensing no harm, lowered himself branch by branch and landed in the man’s arms. He looked the boy full in the face. He stroked the fur that grew from the boy’s eyebrow along his temple, brown fur dotted with white. He wept.
The boy marvelled. This was the second man he had ever seen. But while this one was small and stocky, muscular, tan and warm, the first had been beardless, thin and blue as skimmed milk. He had visited the boy’s mother many times in the cave where they took shelter. He spoke to her in wheedling, cajoling tones. She had cringed from him until he departed in anger, leaving a menacing aura.
This man, Fionn mac Cumhall, held the boy in a solid, happy embrace. “Little Fawn, my son. You’ve come home,” he laughed. “Seven years I’ve searched for you and your mother,” he said. He stood abruptly, looked about, beat the bushes half-heartedly like one who had worn a long, tired habit to the nub. He called “Sadb! Sadb!” but there was no sign of life and Fionn mac Cumhall again hugged the bewildered boy and sighed.
Then the boy was wrestling on the ground with Bran and Sceolan, who slavered and nipped him while he pulled their red ears as if they were old friends.
Now he is merely old. This groaning age has come upon him so terribly and suddenly.
The cell door opens and the monk enters bearing a bowl of broth. Fasting and prayer and flagellation. There is no laughter, no hardiness in this new world where Patrick’s god is cramped within church walls.
The monk hands the bowl to the old man. He mutters thanks and takes it with trembling hands. His white beard drags in the gruel. Patrick of Rome picks it out and sits beside him and begins again his pious persuasions. The old, old man, who is blind and shrinking, wishes he were also deaf.
* * *
The doe grazes in a glade just at the edge of the human world. A trail of red stars still hangs where the faerie Niamh passed out of Tir na n’Og. The doe looks wishfully at the scarlet shimmer. She would also go into the human world but for dangers whose details she now only barely recalls.
Her mind’s pictures swirl around a relentless white light in the form of a long, thin man. The cold figure has always lurked there.
He captured her and she escaped and he captured her again. Round and round him she ran. With every step, she changed from hind to woman or woman to hind.
There is another man, and he, too, pursues her. He is warm and tan and sturdy and safe. Sometimes, he leaps into the doe’s memory followed by two white hounds. Sometimes, he is in the mirthful company of other men.
Secure in his dun, the doe was transformed to woman and wife. Then she had a name and she lived happily awhile. But the beardless man, who burned determined as noon, found her, tricked her, trapped her, and with the fith-fath he recast her and led her away.
Fionn mac Cumhall struck his fist against his chest. He searched glen and ravine, mountain and wood, coast and cavern, calling “Sadb! Sadb!” She could not penetrate the thin, hard light to reach him.
Blood and water on a cave floor. A human infant sliding from between the twitching thighs of a deer.
The ever-present, beardless man watched from shadow as the doe licked the baby’s temple. A patch of brown fur flecked with white sprouted where her thick, coarse tongue licked and cleaned the membrane from the little boy’s head.
The fearful yelping of hounds. The shouts of hunters. The boy scrambling up a tree. The doe rushing frantically into the hard light of the beardless man. His hazel wand whistling around her. His fith-fath made her invisible to Fionn mac Cumhall.
* * *
“Have I lived so long that Fionn and the Fianna are worm-eaten in their graves?” the old man mutters. “Where are they?”
He has traveled so far through time and found no one and nothing but a pitiful, woodless place, where once-strong men are rooted to husbandry, dwarfed in the confines of fortresses, humbled by a disdainful god. At the cooking places of the Fianna, there is desiccated silence. The great oak that marked the dun is gone. A rubble of weeds and nettle and moss-covered stones where Fionn’s great hall stood.
Roman Patrick’s tonsure gleams in the cell’s wretched light. “The limbs of the mighty Fianna are torn and scorched on the burning slabs of hell.”
The old man reaches for the patch on his temple. Age has left bare and tented skin. Never has shame been put on him till now. “If the brown leaves were gold that the wood lets fall, if the white waves were silver, Fionn would have given it all away.”
The monk sighs. “Your false deities are dead, conquered by the one true god. The paradise of which you sing is wicked and profane.”
“And the hounds?” the old man mumbles. “Will Bran and Sceolan greet me in heaven with their happy yells?”
“Animals have no souls,” Patrick replies and he leans into the old man’s face, hot breath fluttering the white beard, as if to demonstrate the devil’s heat.
What are flimsy, pale angels to the Fianna? They would overcome Patrick’s devil as he were a weak infant. The old man opens his mouth to speak, then hardens into silence. A young swordsman appears in the old man’s mind, a youth who had been mute but when he finally learned human speech it was poetry and he sang with his harp by the fires of the Fianna. Patrick rumbles on, punctuating his sermon with demands for more tales about Fionn and Fianna. But the old man is lost again in the mist that drizzled on the youth one morning long ago.
Hunt-wandering overcame him as day suddenly turned to night. He was separated from his dogs and his companions and he meandered alone and weary. He stumbled into a luminous valley, where a doe grazed placidly.
She turned to him with yearning eyes. “Follow me, fawn of my heart.”
He stared at the creature, fearful he might burst with love.
They came to a rock in the base of a hill. She lifted a leaf with her mouth and the rock opened. They entered a bright cavern, lit gold with many tallows. Tapestries covered rough walls and brocade covered soft seats. Inside, the doe became a woman.
“I am your mother from whom you were parted long ago,” she said. “You are hungry and tired. Come, Oisin, Little Fawn, sit down and rest.”
She placed food and drink before him and when he had done feasting, she gave him a harp and he sang the stories of Fionn mac Cumhall. The woman who was his mother and a doe sobbed quietly.
The old man snores, dreaming of the young man asleep on his mother’s lap, while she sang to him.
My darling, my dun buck,
my spirit and my delight.
Fairim, firim, obh, obh.
May I not hear of your wounding,
may I not see you weep.
My calf, my foal, my fair one.
For three days, the youth slept and when he woke, he said, “I must go, Mother, to the Fianna.”
She kissed his cheek three times. She touched the tip of her tongue to his salty temple. She opened the door in the rock, and under the evening sky, she changed from woman to hind.
When he found his company, it was not three days, but three years had passed.
The old man wakes with a start. “How long, Patrick, since I last walked this land in the footsteps of the Fianna?”
“Half a thousand years, but time is short. Repent and be saved. You will have eternal life.”
“Monk, I had eternal life. It was mine in the lap of my mother and mine at Tir na n’Og in the arms of Niamh. Yet I chose to return, to visit mortal seasons with Fionn and my brothers. Whether they now reside in your heaven or in your hell, there I will go with them.”
* * *
A supple, young voice resounds in the doe’s memory even as she rests secure now in the balm of Tir na n’Og. The song of her son which never fades. The song of caution he daily chanted into the forests and hills and plains after he had left her golden cavern.
If you are my mother and you a deer,
arise before the sunrise.
If you are my mother and you a deer,
beware the blade in every hunter’s hand,
beware the hounds of uproar, hounds of rage
in battle-fury before you.
* * *
Niamh’s journey continues. Her eyes dart across the dark terrain seeking clues. The beauty with which she can overpower all men illuminates the land. That beauty with which she transfixed Fionn and the Fianna on the day she claimed Oisin.
She rode the white steed dressed in queen’s raiment. Her summoning song as she entered Fionn’s camp cast a drowsy stillness over the trees, the sky, the birds, the hounds and the men.
The song ended and Fionn recovered his own voice. “Where do you come from, maiden, and what do you want from me?”
The daughter of the king of the Land of Youth announced her intention.
“Of all men,” Fionn asked, “why Oisin?”
She did not answer, but looked from the Rigfennid to his son. She had spied on Oisin as he wandered through woods and fields, remote in the rowdy fellowship of the Fianna, strong and graceful, yet skittish, eyes distant as if he were seeking something lost lifetimes ago. She had disguised herself as a fly on his chessboard. As sheen on the strings of his harp, as red stars circling his campfires. She had hidden in the dark of the moon and listened to his songs. She watched him until she was distraught with love and desire.
“Will you go with me, Oisin, to my father’s land, to Tir na n’Og?”
She sat her horse before him, so radiant he lost all resolve and forgot his love for all things but her. “I will go with you to the world’s end,” he said.
He kissed his father. Fionn ran his fingers through the fur on Oisin’s temple. I have no hope that you’ll come back to me, Little Fawn,” he said.
Oisin mounted the white steed behind Niamh and they departed against the stream of Fionn mac Cumhall’s lament.
Niamh still feels Oisin’s arms around her waist exactly as they were that day. Once again, she sings her summoning song that Oisin might reveal his whereabouts.
An endless feast, unceasing music
in the land beyond all dreams.
Come, Oisin, to wild honey
and wine that never fails.
Come to fruit and flower.
You will have horses
and hounds that outrun the wind.
A magic blade
and Niamh to love you all your days.
The memories spur her impatience. Niamh shakes the horse’s ringing bridle. “My beauty, my dancer. Quickly. Can you find the place where you left him?”
The white steed shoots like a sunbeam across the plain. Soon they stand at the mouth of a quarry, where small, feeble men gasp and grunt hauling granite and marble.
* * *
The land is dotted with tiny stick-and-mud huts. The faerie Niamh thinks how cruel and foolish Oisin was to leave her. For a time in Tir na n’Og he was content. But the Country of the Young was too tame, too pretty. Ecstasy turned to evasion. Restlessness for the mortal world. To roam and hunt and fight with the Fianna. Back and forth from faerie to human Oisin migrated his whole life long. And thinking of his wandering, Niamh feels very old. She is forever sheltered, forever fixed in maidenhood. But what if her feet were now to touch the ground? Would she dissolve into dust?
She seeks Oisin — to plead for his return or mourn his death — but she has no notion of human years, or how many have gone since Oisin went away with her. Yet staring into the quarry, she sees that in whatever time that was, free men have become enslaved, and the wilderness, once so like the balmy green of Tir na n’Og, has disappeared. In the quarry below, puny, straining men, sweating despite the winter cold, pound rocks for taskmasters.
She sits on the white steed watching until one man’s eye catches hers. She calls so none but he can hear. He raises his arm to his forehead to shield himself against her brilliance. She exhales and with her breath suspends the others in their gestures. She inhales and draws the quarryman up the sides of the black pit. He shifts from foot to foot before her, eyes downcast, quivering and terrified.
At last he stammers, “Great shining queen, are you an angel who rides the devil’s stallion?”
Who or what are devils and angels? Niamh wonders. Aloud she says simply, “Tell me.”
“A warrior fell from this horse not five days ago,” the man answers.
“How did he fall?” Her voice is so sweet it emboldens him.
“Men were trapped under a marble slab. Dying. We could not move it. The slab would not budge.
“Just then, a warrior pranced toward us. On that very horse. In foreign dress. He was tall and mighty, with sword-blue eyes and ruddy cheeks. His teeth were like pearls and his yellow curls clustered beneath his helmet like a halo. We thought he, too, must be an angel come to free us from toil and care. A messenger from heaven, come to save the souls of the men crushed beneath the rock.
“Then we saw that one eyebrow spread full across his temple in fur with the markings of a fawn, and some among us were afraid.”
Niamh smiles and nods encouragement. The man grows confident.
“The warrior leaned from the saddle, and with a huge, one-handed heave, he lifted the marble slab. But as he leaned into the stone, and as it rolled back down the pit, his saddle girth unbuckled and he slipped headlong off the horse and landed on the ground.
“In that instant, this horse vanished. It was this steed and this same saddle, too. The withered thing that rose from the ground teetering was no youthful warrior but an old, old man.”
“We fled. Then we knew the fur on his temple was the mark of the devil. We ran as he moaned and groped blindly at the air and fell again and again.”
“You deserted him? Alone and sightless? He who had rescued you? Men have become cowards.”
The quarryman loses the rhythm of his story. He cringes when Niamh raises the flat of her hand above his head. “Go on!” she orders.
“Great queen. Blesséd angel. Please. We turned back when we saw that the doom had been wrought for him alone. Then we lifted him up and asked him who he was.
“My lady, sure he was daft. He claimed to be son of Fionn mac Cumhall, gone half a thousand years. We took him to Patrick. It is five days. Sure by now he is dead and absolved. Since holy Patrick came to Ireland with psalms and prayers to cleanse us from sin and save us from …”
But Niamh has left the man to finish telling his tale to a wreath of red stars, while the others within the quarry, released from the spell, laugh at him as if he were talking to fireflies.
* * *
Patrick dismisses his scribes. The old, old man is dying and will no longer speak. The monk has rid the land of druids and oaks and built his seven hundred churches in every corner. For five days, he has savored Oisin’s tales of the Fianna, story after story of love and war that enchant the monk and he craves the old man’s voice. In his sleep, Patrick mutters a fith-fath and, in his dreams, his body shifts to that of a handsome roebuck. Every morning he prays for absolution and scourges himself on his god’s behalf.
What life is left to Oisin has been kept pulsing by Patrick’s demands for songs. The tales have turned to rattles in his throat. He sees his mother in her golden cavern. He hears the high blasts of hunting horns and the joyful barks of Bran and Sceolan. There is no pleasure without Fionn mac Cumhall and the Fianna.
The marble grandeurs of Roman Patrick’s persistent heaven pale beside those of the green, gentle Land of Youth. The old man feels the fragile faerie bones of lovely Niamh pressing tight against him, while century after century pass like minutes in Tir na n’Og.
And the deep dread that glazed Niamh’s cloudless eyes as she spoke her warning
If you must visit the human world,
if you must find your father,
I give you leave to go.
I give the white steed to carry you.
Swear, Oisin, swear,
promise that your feet
will never touch the ground.
He had found the hunting places of the Fianna, he had found the site of Fionn’s great dun — all destroyed by time. And he had meant to return to Tir na n’Og, but he had fallen from the white steed and helpless age had overtaken him.
Patrick follows his scribes out the cell door. He will bring holy water for last rites. For his own soul’s sake and in gratitude for the old man’s songs, the monk will assure his passage into heaven and pray each day for the soul of Oisin mac Fionn despite his protestations.
Patrick is not present when red stars sift through the cracks in the monastery wall. They twirl about the cell and embrace the wizened figure barely alive on the hard bench.
When the monk returns, the cell is empty. The old, old man is gone.
* * *
In Tir na n’Og she is free. The doe cannot recall how she got here or why Fionn mac Cumhall no longer seeks her or why the cold, beardless man no longer visits her except in memory. She is free from all but loneliness.
The fog at the frontier between the human and faerie realms is lifting. The doe’s keen ears perceive the beat of hooves. She steps quickly, lightly behind a tree. There are no hunting horns, no hounds baying.
Shadows turn to silhouettes in the gloaming. Galloping straight toward her. The faerie Niamh appears bent low on her white steed. Red stars describe a trail behind her and tangle in the horse’s mane.
Come, Oisin, to wild honey,
to wine that never fails.
Come to fruit and flower…
Niamh laughs and sings. A little fawn, antlers budding, races alongside her and together they burst across the border between the worlds.
The doe emerges cautiously from her hiding place. The fawn tilts his head and nudges her belly. She passes her strong, coarse tongue over his white-speckled temple.
Niamh veers toward the emerald sea. Still laughing, she disappears into silver froth. She will meet Oisin again. When spring is on the earth, his stag’s bell will call her up.
Retold from versions by Michael Cromyn, Padraic Colum, Lady Augusta Gregory, W.B. Yeats and The Carmina Gaedelica, with thanks to John Wright.
Apocalypse Más Tarde
Saiyam Uinicob, mountain spa of the gods, N-O-W divested of its radioactive burden, steamed and hummed happily. We gawped gratefully at the Daybringer and a tiny brand-new star glittering beside it. The crystal boulders that girdled the mountain gleamed in sunlight. The Screech Owl returned to its Daytime nap in La Cripta, where the M.D. had been hidden.
“The big Light is Venus, which you call the Daybringer. Might that little one beside it be a nova or new planet?” Humus sloshed toward us, hauling a trail of hyacinths attached to his back pocket and pointing at the sky. I told him I could still smell the Diamond dross, the litter left from its long traverse across the island. We couldn’t begin the New Era saddled with nuclear sediment.
“Toxins are everywhere,” he sighed. “They’re in the food, the water, the bark of trees and the roots of peonies. In our hair and the fibers of insect wings. On the pads of wolves’ paws and in seeds carried by migrating birds. Few people are Ecological Malodor Detectors like you, Ms. Quintal, and even fewer try. To clean the poisons is a profound challenge and to forego the temptations of mood and materialism that allow them into our environment will take an unprecedented, equitable effort on the part of humankind.”
“An effort humankind seems unwilling to make,” Carlos added.
“Oh no, Dr. Leggett, I wouldn’t be so pessimistic. We haven’t been taught. We’re brainwashed by progress and capitalists, who persuade us to worship technotopias, who try to convince us that greed is good. We’ve been discouraged from any effort except selfish, short-sighted ones.”
“Humus,” I said, “I’ll trace the remaining death-fetor, if you’ll find a means to clean it up and help us get back on our pre-pre-Colombian feet.”
He grinned. “Delighted, Ms. Quintal. There’s so much to learn. I believe applying my theory about the powers of Eichhornia crassipes might be an excellent starting point.” At that, a mating pair of hyacinths sneaked from his pants pocket and wriggled off to find a romantic spot under the volcano in the debris left by the Magenta Diamond. Just what I had in mind, too, but Carlos and I had Work to do. There is indeed a lot to learn and I’m only a neophyte Daykeeper.
I asked Chihuahua to join us.
“Call me Jorge,” he insisted.
“Jorge, you found your Second Heart when you risked your life to bring the True Flame of the Haab from the mountain. Your True Face is reflected in these water hyacinths. I glimpsed it first in the pool at Hotel Paraíso. To begin your Right Work, I suggest you become Dr. Nightsoil’s assistant and apprentice.”
So, Humus and Jorge Lopez-Schmidt, applying the biological data stored in Humus’ mighty brain, set about cleaning Quichemala until air, water and soil squeaked and shined without a vestige of the Magenta Diamond or any of the wannabe civilization introduced by the dictator and his corporate paymasters. Everywhere Humus and Jorge went, Chaos followed, so that new life emerged, and wherever there was life, there was awe and respect and almost no profit motive. But you know how it is: those annoying little windows of regularity keep popping up just when you’ve got a good Chaos cookin’.
Humus and Jorge kept meticulous records on Seeing Instruments for the benefit of future generations. At Baktuntenango, they discovered the pure, unadulterated, unhybridized, ancient seeds that Motherfather 7Moth had saved. They propagated the land. Food for everyone, including slugs and aphids and ants and weevils, as well as monkeys and macaws. All the so-called pests. We no longer require mango elixir, but mangos are magic nonetheless. The most pleasurable fruit Nature ever invented.
With the help of the Peace Furies – formerly the Eco-Fems, minus Guadalupe and LaVon – Humus eventually returned to Denver and I’ve heard he’s been wandering the Earth ever since on his quest to get rid of its ecocidal enemies. The Land of Thorns is still Decades behind us, but 2012 is coming soon, and Humus wants you norteños to be prepared.
His is the triumph of hope over experience. Hope, Humus believes, must triumph. Yet hope is merely pink pixie dust if Right Work, applied with the vigor of the Second Heart, doesn’t accompany it.
When Humus left Quichemala, Jorge became Guardian of Un-Agriculture.
The citizens of Quichemala, flora and fauna alike, vertebrate and in-, decided through a general election that, in order for Time to be on our side, we had to live in isolation. The harmless green fog, which Humus first noticed enfolding the island, makes us invisible to the outside world. We decided it must stay. It will be a permanent parenthesis to protect us from the physical and spiritual pesticides polluting Time and Space. I have my doubts about the wisdom of living insulated on an island. We might evolve ourselves out of existence under such restricted circumstances. We might experience a kind of punctuated equilibrium and become, say, flightless, like some birds and bats of New Zealand. I’ve wondered, too, about our responsibility to the planet. Indeed, we are missing a great deal, including the horrors of September 11, 2001, and the worse disasters that followed and continue. Linear Time and the dogmatic terrors that come with it hold the Land of Thorns captive. I wish I could help, but I’ve bowed to the majority of Quichemalans who want nothing more to do with the world. We consider this a worthy and powerful experiment in survival and symbiosis. Nevertheless, we fear for you out there in the Land of Thorns and we pray for you.
Our entire island is the Monarch of its Own Skin. One of the first requirements, the first Right Work, is to esnooze all Day, esamba all Night. Mamá would be appalled. We have become, as Tío Ramón advised, “gatherers of Paleolithic laziness, gentle as blood, painted as birds, poised on the wave of explicit presence, the clockless nowever.”
The people have determined that no one will ever again threaten their empowerment. N-O-W, we are one hundred percent Agents of Chaos. Civilization, we agree, is too often usurious and oppressive, a lousy idea when it denies the possibilities of magic. Elsewhere, societies are divided into a few veryvery wealthy and many veryvery poor and the poorest of these are the plants and animals who sacrifice their habitats daily.
In Quichemala, we’ve decided never to abandon anyone’s well being, sentient or not. No, it’s not exactly Camelot. How tootoo rosy and human-centered that would be. There’s the question of food. Cannibalism isn’t out of the question, it can’t be, but because we revere every living being, cannibalism itself has to be redefined.
My oh my oh, it is complex. What’s a Motherfather to do? You might not think the placid worm is a predator – unless you’re thin and green. Or the lilting goldfinch – as he cracks the skulls of endless infant flowers.
We voted to give Don Elegante the title of El Maricón, with LaVon as First Companion. There is no happier couple in Quichemala. El Maricón will organize the post-M.D. reconstruction and administer rebuilding, reforestation, education and election. He is more skilled at these tasks than he is at the supernatural. He is peculiar, but his characteristics are not. His revolving cabinet consists of representatives from nearly every species. And, of course, the hummingbirds are always there, buzzing in Elegante’s ear and feeding off his sugary pomade.
The cabinet decreed first and foremost that everyone – no exceptions – would be in charge of environmental protection. Their next act was to consecrate Motherfather 7Moth’s launch pad as a sacred site and commons. Euphrosne Flambé walked all around the island, rolling the shed skin of the Serpent of Time, like miles and miles of pink pantyhose, then coiling it into a tall obelisk, a monument to Ramón Quintal.
Needless to tell, Don Elegante grieved wildly when he realized Motherfather 7Moth was desaparecido. He gnawed his manicure so fiercely, he nearly wore his incisor skull to the gum. LaVon consoled him, while I reminded him that Tío Ramón had disappeared before and that this Time he’d promised to return in one form or another.
El Maricón may be just a tad jealous that I’m the successor Daykeeper. But I swore I’d rise to the occasion and I am learning. I still wear pink, but it’s hot and I don’t hide behind it. It illustrates my Second Heart and the person I hope to become.
I offered the jeweled cape of X-tabai to Euphrosne, to whom it rightly belonged.
“I don’t want it, girl,” she said. “Give it to Ellie.” She was right, of course. He loves it and wears it to every cabinet meeting. And though he was never to be a Daykeeper, and can never become X-tabai, any more than Xerox could, he is honored as a he-goddess, which is almost as good and which fulfilled Euphrosne’s prophecy that he would peacefully eclipse El Repelente in public leadership.
To most people lately, I have become Motherfather 10Snake, revered and respected. But to Princess Flambé, I’ll always be “girl.”
LaVon is training ballplayers for the next Haab. That one will be a bloodless game, but it’ll be thrilling to watch, and losers will still be winners, even as winners are winners, since there will be no score keeping, no competition.
Mamá left Quichemala just before the election. “Democracee. Eets a berry jello theeng to do,” she cooed proudly. No one could convince her that democracy is, in fact, a “peenk theeng,” which must vary with any culture that chooses to adopt it.
I hated to lose her. Both my hearts hurt when she left. But she had to return. Tía Angela was running the store alone and swatting twice her share of flies. What’s more, Mamá loves her adopted country. Me, I guess I’m a retrograde refugee: a returnee.
We communicate constantly, via orioles. Birdwatchers flock to Ohio for the out-of-season migrations to Quintal Dairy Queen and Green Grocery – where they fortify themselves with flan. They attribute these migrations to global warming. You can rightly blame a lot on climate change, but entres nous, these divagations of messenger orioles are not a symptom of it.
“Kip joor feets up,” Mamá advised me when she departed. Then she hugged Carlos. “Anabela – I min, Mamápapá 10eSnake – ees truly the esentinel of her-eself,” she told him, “But joo, beeg gato, take goo’ care of mi’ija and help her to act esmart.”
Then she tweaked Gordo’s tail feathers. “Joo godda be de ogliest pájaro I ever deed saw.”
“¡Chinga tu madre!” Gordo retorted.
“I had a dream inside a dream,” Euphrosne whispered when we awoke from our seven-Day sleep.
“Me, too, and part of it was that I dreamed you were dreaming. Was yours portentous, Princess?” I asked. This Time I was anxious for her advice.
“I saw a star careen to Earth and…oh, nevermind!” she sobbed. “The revolution’s over and N-O-W it’s all just re-evolution.”
Only an evening in the company of Jack Daniel’s – fortunately one of the few beverages the Russian racketeers hadn’t exterminated from the Hotel Paraíso bar – corked Euphrosne’s tears. We talked over old Times and with every shot, we released a loud prayer – “ahhh” – but my superseer, my bruja best friend kept any predictions and paranormal oracular pontificating to herself. I wondered what kind of escape she might be plotting this Time.
She would admit, of course, though not with her usual grandiloquence, that she’d augured my fate long ago when we were merely Wednesday Weekly Weepers. “Girl, I knew all along there was more to you than met the nose. I knew you would finally live out your potential. I was sure you’d put your peculiar characteristics to work and that, sooner or later, darling, you’d overcome the putrid prom pink that was colonizing your hot pink soul.”
I pretended not to care, but secretly I was tickled pink by Euphrosne’s approval.
Nevertheless, from the Moment of the Awakening at the Haab, Euphrosne could not be persuaded to forecast even so much as the weather. I am learning to do it myself. “It’s your Right Work, honey,” she assured me. “One of the Daykeeper duties, left to you by <sob> Ramón. Hell’s bells, girl, everyone’s psychic,” she said distractedly. “Most of us are just too scared to take a good look.”
Time passed. Euphrosne Flambé toiled hard. She planted trees where there had been oil wells, clear cuts and roads. She hammered and sowed and reaped and harvested. She kept Baktuntenango spic ‘n’ span, mopped the Pyramid, swept the shards of the Corporado’s effigy and tossed them into the sea, chanting curses and cleansing prayers. She polished the statue of Motherfather 4Rabbit and fertilized the village gardens with the Sacramental Leavings of pilgrims of all species at the Sacred Launch Pad of Motherfather 7Moth. She gathered leeches and herbs and mixed remedies in the laboratory distillery. But she never sang, rarely smiled and did not preach … much. Whenever she spied the tiny, brand-new star, she stopped whatever she was doing and wept. The Diositas of Seconds, Minutes, Hours, Days, Weeks and Months dragged their asses while Euphrosne waited for a Sign. The fortuneteller’s fortune.
Then one morning, the supply of nail polish and markers she’d brought to Quichemala clanked from her backpack onto the floor. Euphrosne picked them up and remembered the keys and codes she’d dreamed way back in Santa Fe. She painted the symbols carefully on her toenails, separated each little piggy with a Johnson & Johnson SuperSoft Puff left over from my pre-parenthetical olfactory daze. She refreshed the spiral on her palm and added a star.
Then she strolled into the selva, to the yaxche tree and disappeared into its sappy maw.
Oh dear, I miss her so much. I visit the tree every Day to chat and gossip. I can translate the tree’s sounds – one creak for “yes,” two for “no” – but a conversation that Euphrosne Flambé doesn’t dominate is somehow unsatisfying.
El Repelente, aka El Jaguar, aka Professor Carlos Leggett, crawls out of bed each morning, kisses me, greets the Daybringer with a whirl of his cane – from which he’s removed the derringer –and limps into the bat cave, where he communes ecstatically with images of Natous primus. He floats into Otherworlds along the high frequency corridors of bat calls, squeals and chatters. Occasionally, messages sift in from Motherfather 7Moth and Motherfather 4Rabbit.
While Carlos breakfasts, I determine which Weeks are auspicious, which Days require caution, round and round in concentric circles. We’ve named this fresh Fifty-Two-Year Era the Sun of Lepidoptera Jaguar. It is the first period of the Long-Count Calendar that began again on the Haab. It presents 18,980 Days, during which all possible interactive combinations can occur. Plus Thirteen tintinnabulating Leap Days! And they are all dedicated to Nature.
After siesta, Carlos lurches about the island, followed by the young of animals and humans alike. He has never stopped teaching, though he’s lost all interest in his former life as an anthropologist at Brainard University. All the clocks and thus all ambition have stopped.
He is fifty-two years old, no longer an academic or a guerrilla. He has found his Second Heart and True Face, and his Right Work is no less than the pursuit of bliss and dream. He traces the songlines, organizes music and poetry, which he translates to and from various animal languages. He maps the reveries and visions brought to him by Quichemaleños of every genus. The dreams create our history, a history not shaped by politicians, but sculpted from weightless unfoldings. Eternal news. Criminal visions. Pirate reveries. In the Land of Thorns, up North, it is said that to dream is dangerous. We say that the antidote, therefore, is to dream more.
At Night, after a liberal dose or two of aguardiente, accompanied by gulping prayers, Carlos metamorphoses into El Jaguar and stalks the Altar of the Lord of the Lily Jaguar, where he sketches the Day’s dreams with his claw into the surrounding soil. This way, he makes certain the Serpent of Time continues to sleep contentedly, biting its own tail, so that “once upon a Time” can coil on and on and Chaos can saturate anywhen and everywhen, with no deadly engagement with the past or future, no linear agenda. So that the universe will always be open- ended and we will always be in the present, flourishing in the glorious ( ) of N-O-W.
Chaos never died.
The Second Heart – 1
(from Chapter 29)
El Repelente, aka El Jaguar, aka Professor Carlos Leggett, let himself be captured not only to save his compadres, but for my sake. He had returned my locket and with those acts, he created his Second Heart. Mine had yet to be born, but I’ve always been a late bloomer.
The birth of the Second Heart can occur through any combination of circumstances. The Heart’s fire ignites without warning. Carlos Leggett surrendered not only to the Star Sparkle of Chaos, with its promise of instantaneous grace, he not only gave in to Earth and all her juicy, mysterious, popping protoplasms – thus befriending himself in the bargain – but for the first Time in his life, he yielded unconditionally to the thing each human being craves to the point of terror:
The birth of the Second Heart equals the daily rebirth of the Sun, the Lifegiver. The First Heart is the soul’s Daybringer. The Second Heart is Light. Love is the spark, the kindling that bursts into flame when we learn to salvage love from desire, singularity, artifice and possession, and discover our True Faces and Right Work. When we let love widen like Time in huge concentric circles, radiating like radio waves, encompassing everything on Earth, then growing on and on into the divinity of Chaos, back to the beginning, the pink quasar, the Isle of Continuous Regeneration, the spirit of wildness.
The First Heart keeps our corporeal bodies ticking and drives the mating dance. It is a chronic, sacrificial victim, often brave but usually captive and helpless. The Second Heart promises immortality, fearlessness, freedom and the renewal of Time.
The First Heart requires bypasses, pacemakers and psychotherapy. But it is more than biological or psychological, more secretly illuminated than we are ever allowed to believe. It is within the heart of the Second Heart that the forces of Pan-demon-ium reside and wait. The Second Heart breeds by accident. Buried deep within the First, it smolders like an incandescent egg. The First Heart has an infinite capacity for infinite love, unrealized until the Second Heart’s manifestation.
War, within ourselves or with others, materialism, greed and pettiness – which begin all wars – extinguishes the embers of the heart/hearth’s nest, frightens us with glimpses of our True Faces and thus discourages us from performing our Right Work.
And what is Right Work?
Deliberate and conscious magic-making in service to Love and Nature.
My first Night in Quichemala.
Outside our hotel room, the ceiba tree gleamed, relentlessly shouldering the sky. Water hyacinths floated in the pool, sanguine as corpuscles. Euphrosne was cocooned on the bed applying a metaphysical pedicure. She was painting her toenails with the symbols that had appeared in her dream. At dinner, she’d shown her sketches to Elegante, hoping for an interpretation, but all she got was another helping of mosquito-egg caviar.
On other occasions, Euphrosne Flambé applied symbols from the Kabbalah or the signs of the Zodiac to her nails with a tiny marker. For personal reasons she wouldn’t explain, she usually left out Capricorn and Cancer. She had frequently offered to embellish my toes with snake faces the way I had when I was a kid. Doing so, she claimed, would help me step livelier through life, yet know when it was necessary to slink. Snake toes didn’t seem appropriate for a woman dressed for success.
She was concentrating as if in a séance. What wickedness might she now be anticipating? From my point of view, Hotel Paraíso was a safe harbor, a secure parenthesis in the midst of a peril-packed paragraph. If I was a prisoner, so be it. It looked a lot grimmer outside these high walls.
“Like Time,” I said, “parentheses are thought bubbles.”
My words surprised me, but apparently not Euphrosne. She said nothing, did not even look up. I glanced out the window. The moon was fraught and the twin sentries, whom Don Elegante informed us were named Newborn Thunderbolt and Raw Thunderbolt, were erect as broomsticks on their branches. There wasn’t another living soul in sight.
Sopadilla, aguacate and copal trees shivered. The wind was rising, intensifying the local smells and the sharp waft of that plutonium odor, so like the one surrounding Denver. I was up to triple puffs with no air to spare. The breeze caused the Light to caper and cavort in the garden, like fairies, once upon a Time.
“Like once upon a Time,” I mused aloud, “parentheses are air holes in Time. They are in Time, not on Time, surfers skimming waves that never reach the shore. Once upon a Time is everywhen and anywhen, which is exactly where we are now, Princess.”
She ignored me. Outside, the wind tossed shadows that resembled leaping jaguars metamorphosing into the shapes of men.
“I am a nationless child,” I continued. “This is my home, and it must be real or I wouldn’t be a prisoner.”
“Mmmmm-hmmmm,” Euphrosne answered.
“And yet, I’m a stranger in Paraíso, buffeted by Time. Time, for nationless children and immigrants, is like these shadows: turbulent, topsy-turvy, transformative, multitiered. We left the U.S. in Time for 2012, a two-Decade journey. Are we also inside other eras, other calendars, other Times?”
Euphrosne did not look up, but concentrated on painting a spiral on her palm.
“Don Elegante described Linear Time as a threat that will destroy us. One straight shot, determined to engage with the future. I see now that my vague careerism, mismatched with my absolute lack of ambition proves my genetic Quichemalan memory of and affinity for circular Time. Mamá says it was the ‘peenk theeng,’ but I say it’s my natural relationship to Time.”
Right there, you’d think Euphrosne would have scoffed, but she did not. So I went on:
“Despite my ambitions, I probably knew all along that there could be no future. Why do we strive so hard for it, when we’re always in the present? When and if the future were realized, the world would end. Even as we say the word NOW, as we’re voicing the O, the N is in the past and the W is being born. When the W has been sounded, the word is post-mortem. That was Don Elegante’s point, wasn’t it?”
Euphrosne tossed me another unsatisfying “mmmmm-hmmmm.”
“The future is Time’s grand finale,” I said. “All events are more outstanding in memory than in actuality. So in that case, the present is also illusion and therefore, we’re always in the past, right?”
“And Quichemalan Time takes place in concentric circles,” I continued, “like the message left in the dust of Tío Ramón’s storm cellar. Were those circles some kind of countdown? A warning? In Quichemala, Don Elegante told us, Time is not blocked off in month-by-month squares. Rather, Time is a coiled snake, biting its tail. Quichemalan Time is reborn each dawn. When the Daybringer rises, the snake is awakened.
“Scientists,” I said, but rather than rant, Euphrosne merely winced. “Scientists claim the beginning of Time can be found in a quasar fourteen billion Light Years away.”
She flinched, but did not inject her customary invectives. She only repeated, “mmmmm-hmmmm,” so I went on, excited by my thoughts.
“That quasar is a pink island, where the smells are water hyacinths, mango and aguardiente. The quasar’s center is a great vulvic volcano, vomiting spectacular sparks that surround each Earth inhabitant from the teeniest, pacifist amoeba to the biggest, most bombastic mammal. The sparks are Days and our Days are numbered. Sometimes your sparks collide with mine and then, my oh my, Princess, what tintinnabulating Times we have together.”
I stood, my voice lifting, my arms waving. “Who are the border guards at Time’s frontiers? Who are the customs officials? Do they carry alarm clocks in their holsters? Do they search our bygone baggage for the contraband we try to smuggle into the O of NOW?
“WHAT are we smuggling, Euphrosne? Don’t answer that! It’s easy. Everything. Any worn-out notion we can get away with, any flatulent belief we can sneak through the watchtower. We cling to our first faces, our primal hearts, our names, our wrong work. The past and future exist because we can’t let go! The present does not exist, because we refuse to live in the Moment. Do you realize what that means, Euph? Just like in your dream: the Serpent of Time is untwisting. It means…it means…it means: Princess, the world is mired in untimely deep shit.”
I gabbled on, motivated by moon and mango or by the quicksilver of Time itself. “Anglo menology takes centuries to complete. Too long for one person to experience what Time has to offer. Quichemalan Time reaches the snake’s head, trudges up its sloping brow, slides down the critter’s snout and proceeds around its scaly sphere to fulfill another Fifty-Two-Year lifetime, another Century, another convergence, another end-of-Days. Think about it, Princess. You can have it all in Fifty-Two. The full complement of Leap Years, Blue Moons and Total Eclipses of the Sun. That, I’m sure, is what was written in Tío Ramón’s Seeing Instruments, and now, N-O-W, I wish I’d paid attention.”
The wind brought rain. “Bowling for Time,” I thought, “Rip van Winkle lost twenty annum.” The torrent outside our room, however, was not one of those celestial ninepin dramas, but a galaxy of fizzing, joggled soda pop tops. The plutonium death-fetor shot through the storm, straight as a poison dart, flat as a desk calendar. The Thunderbolt Twins, Newborn and Raw, were still glued to the ceiba’s massive trunk, hair whipping in the oncoming gale, their Resplendent Quetzal companions still perched on their shoulders. They were quiet as monks. Soundless as Time. Time skating on. Time measuring movement, while things ground to a halt in Quichemala and simultaneously rushed forward, leaping over Seconds, Minutes, Hours, Days, Weeks, Months, Years, Decades and Centuries.
Time is a runic rhyme. A pockmarked gypsy. The breath of universal lungs. The cogitation of universal mind. The suspension of belief. The blood under our fingernails. Dead crows. Deadlines. Datelines. Deedlines.
There’s quittin’ Time; retiring Time; got the Time? Any Time; Time and again; Father Time; be on Time; siesta Time; nick of Time; Time heals all wounds; almost Time? Past Time; dinner Time; not much Time; Time to live and Time to die; Time to et cetera, to so forth and so on.
The “No Joke” section of the Denver News tells us that it takes eleven and a half Days for one million Seconds to pass. One billion Seconds take thirty-two Years. One trillion Seconds add up to a whopping thirty-two thousand Years.
Not counting fractions, that’s one hundred and fifty Quichemaleño Fifty-Two-Year eras and every Second counts. Each Hour is a god. Each god has an appellation and sixty unchristened children.
Here and now, on this pink island, a maleficent airstream, hell’s halitosis, was squeezing Time’s jugular, choking Time to death. My Rolex said it was Time for dawn, but the morning star was late. I scanned the sky for signs, but the Daybringer was dangerously dragging below the horizon.
There were two Weeks until the end. Two Weeks until the beginning. Two Weeks to 2012.
El Repelente (Or the 2012 Antics of Anabela)
(On Thursday, July 28, at 4:37 p.m., I finally quit my job as a general assignment reporter for the Denver News.)
This is the story of how I, Anabela Quintal, jumped my linear tracks and entered a parenthesis – a Time within a Time – how I found my way into a world of wise digressions, happy asides and slant thinking. How I turned out to be an Agent of Chaos. This is my memoir of becoming and of the beginnings of Motherfather 10Snake in the First Year of the Sun of Lepidoptera Jagua, PMD, or Post-Magenta Diamond, 2012.
Newspapers hate grammatical playfulness. It’s Associated Press-style this, New York Times-style that, day in, day out. Newspaper editors are linguistic liturgists, casting the sin out of your syntax, the hype out of your ‘perbole. I was never attached to details. But I have learned that it is in details that we glimpse truth. The sky is a detail; “the ground” is an indefinite. Truth? Your truth or mine?
All this happened before the awful advent of powerful television news channels like CNN and Fox, before a vice president invented the Internet. Yet newspapers were the seedbeds for what was to come–the rolling-mouth Rushes and O’Reillys, the Bland Blitzers. I was in on the beginning of infotainment, and I was just as banal as my employers, just as complacent. I did not fret about the Denver News’ platitudinous prose, sensationalist headlines, stultifying miscellany and biases, as long as the place provided me with a paycheck and dental insurance. I believed I needed security. I believed in the Future. After all, I was an immigrant. If there is anyone who believes in the Future, who has no choice but to have faith in the Future, it is an immigrant.
I have three peculiar characteristics. Two are my feet. There is no retail size to describe them.
I’m a tiny woman, with olive skin and fragile bones like my Mamá and Tía Angela. These Cadillac paws must have dogpaddled in from a distant lagoon in the Quintal gene pool, or maybe they came from my father’s side of the family. I had no way of knowing. Mamá never mentioned Papá.
My toes are tapered like boa constrictors’ heads. When I was a kid, I painted snake faces on my toenails and held meaningful conversations with them. Later, although I was still tempted, I realized it was childish, even anti-American, to commune with my lower extremities, but there was a period when it seemed like my toes were my only friends. And so it was until I went to college and joined a consciousness-raising group, the Wednesday Weekly Weepers.
In college and until recently, I had a boyfriend named LaVon. Even LaVon, an all-star basketball player, whose high-tops were like canvas yachts, could not cork my calfskins. O LaVon! His big tongue sprinted down my little body, wriggled around my instep, squeezed my metatarsus, tickled my heels, squirmed under my golden arches and dribbled until I gurgled with agonized delight.
A woman can treasure her memories, can’t she? I adored LaVon. Nevermind that he dumped me for a National Football League quarterback. Deep down, I understood they made a much better match. But I missed him for a long time. He was blissful, thoughtful and wise. He reminded me of my Tío Ramón. When LaVon dumped me, I grieved and sulked for weeks, just as I had when my uncle disappeared.
It was my best friend, Euphrosne Flambé, who decided that I’d had a suitable mourning period. Euphrosne liked to make decisions for me and being a rosy, indecisive, complacent soul, I usually went along. She reminded me that the quarterback was prettier, more ambitious, a better conversationalist, more varied dresser and certainly more nimble and imaginative than I could ever hope to be, especially if I insisted on continuing along the bourgeois path I was on. At that, I burst into tears. What was LaVon’s lover’s name? I can’t remember now, but you’d recognize it if you keep up with the sports pages.
Euphrosne and I have known each other since college. She was my first real friend and a former Weekly Weeper. Correction: she was an excommunicated Weekly Weeper. Mind you, she never intended to be rude or mean. She was, in her way, a realist. Unlike me, she was intensely interested in Truth. She was a Truth vigilante, ruthlessly rooting Truth from whatever corner or closet she suspected it was cowering. So it was not only my feet or the boredom of being a general assignment reporter for a mediocre newspaper that propelled me into parenthetical mañana. Euphrosne had a lot to do with it. So did my sensational sense of smell:
Peculiar characteristic #3.
When I was a baby, otorhinolaryngologists concluded that I was sensorially overloaded. They suspected it might have happened on the trip from Quichemala to Ohio, but a second opinion determined that it might have been some scum floating in my DNA, a legacy from the aforementioned unmentionable paternity about which Mamá was mum. Regardless, the docs all expected me to grow out of the problem. I didn’t. I was the pickiest eater in the Americas. I can smell almost anything almost anywhere. I am a walking Ecological Malodor Detector.
I can sniff, albeit faintly, the fragrance leaking through the hole in the ozone layer. Not at all unpleasant. Quite the contrary. In space, most odors are crisp as Autumn Breezes with just the slightest hint of silver X-mas tinsel. Christmas is not, as you might think, the heaviest burden for an Ecological Malodor Detector, what with all the fruit cakes, pumpkin pie, mistletoe and frantic consumerism – which, incidentally, has an odor, though not a good one.
No, the heaviest burden for an Ecological Malodor Detector is a chronically aching conscience. I felt constantly, unidentifiably guilty. This, I told Euphrosne Flambé, explained my bogged-down career and creative paralysis.
There was no way I could stomach kale or tuna or frijoles. But those were the least of it. Oil spills anywhere in the Western Hemisphere could send me to bed for a week. Imagine how I wore out my annual sick leave. The scent of roasting rubber and tree bark in the rainforest chinooked into my sinuses whenever trade winds flashed across the Gulf of Mexico. The stench of orange Styrofoam beer-can coolers rapidly replacing Queen Conch on tropical beaches made me queasy. And ashamed.
“Tsk, tsk,” Euphrosne scolded.
“Aw come on, Eu. If your nose could ferret the inevitable choking of the Earth, you’d be embarrassed, too,” I said.
“Well, do something about it!” she replied. “Let guilt be your guide. Let your nose be the instrument that rakes the muck.”
But I was too pink to explore the stink.
Despite its ample alertness, my nose is precisely the right shape for my face. Like my Quichemalan ancestors’ noses, mine shoots bridgeless, imperial and elegant directly from my forehead under a gorgeous shiny mop of stock-straight, jet-black hair. It flares slightly at the nostrils. The flare became intense whenever I neglected to stuff them with lightly perfumed cotton balls to filter the Earth’s alien aromas. Only Johnson & Johnson Super Soft Puffs – discretely placed into each nostril so no one could see them – came between an olfactory coma and me. To say nothing of terminal despair.
Naturally, I had to breathe. With my nose fortified, my lips were always parted in a kiss-me-right-now! Valentine. It was chromosomal kismet: my parted lips were a magnet for men, and that was certainly a stroke of luck for a small, dark Indian with huge feet inevitably ignored in crowds of gargantuan gringas.
At the Denver News, my job was to rewrite police reports. The police beat is not a task reporters normally perform for ten years, but I was more or less content. Like other USean papers, the Denver News discouraged intricate thinking or analysis. For an entire decade, each of my mornings began with words to the effect of: “At fill-in-time yesterday, a fill-in-place-of-origin man/woman/child was stabbed/shot/beaten to death…”
“Somebody has to do it,” I told Euphrosne. “Routine and regurgitation don’t bother me,” I said. “I’m not really complacent. I’ve achieved serenity.” Euphrosne rolled her eyes.
Fact is, I had once offered my investigative antila in service to environmental muckraking, but the News editors considered it unnecessary to send me on expensive assignments where I could use my nose to track toxic-waste and global-warming culprits. Too much sniffing might reveal facts that would offend stockholders and advertisers.
(At 4:43 p.m., Thursday, July 28, I logged my last story. The last news brief I would ever write.)
I stood on the balcony of the Denver News building and inhaled automobile exhaust. My nose cotton was dry and itchy, caked as snot in the desert’s sinuses. Not one whiff of life clung to the hot summer breeze. No cheese, no flowers, no farts, no vegetables, no fruit, no sausage, no sewage, no dog or pigeon poop, no cigarette smoke, no sweat.
With the carefully cultivated nail on my pink-varnished pinkie, I reached into my nostrils and picked out each Super Soft Puff. My first post-Puff snort was a remote hit of the Ipswich garbage barge, still wandering homeless off the Atlantic Seaboard. There was a more distinctive drift from the local Wonder Bread factory, but that was upwind and not so bad if you’ve grown up on lardy tortillas.
Car exhaust was prevalent, of course, but the clincher was the chronic death-fetor at the nuclear weapons plant down the road. That covert smell – which no one else seemed to perceive – pretty much dominated the city’s odorscape. Today, it was worse than ever, as if someone had left the lid off Pandora’s Plutonium Pyxis.
I took a deep breath, coughed, choked, coughed, cleared my throat and quickly dropped my cotton balls into a trashcan. They looked like little brown clouds. I stuffed a clean pair into my nostrils, glanced at my Rolex and walked back into the building. My prize-trout feet flapped quietly across the newsroom carpet. I bent over my keyboard, called up my final police report of the day and for reasons I could not imagine, added parentheses to every paragraph. Except the last, which I deleted and replaced with the following unequivocal statement:
“I quit. I’m going where I won’t feel like a Q-tip dipped in turpentine. Hasta luego.”
What I did not see – though I may have smelled the energy and enthusiasm, the dedication and earnestness, but simply not recognized it – was a public protest taking place in front of the capital building, not far from the Denver News. The Nukes ‘Rn’t Us! Coalition, Gays For Gaia and of course the Wednesday Weekly Weepers were leading growing crowds, chanting and marching to demand that the nuclear weapons plant be shut down and the waste be disposed of safely. Safely? Talk about the triumph of hope over experience!
Oh well, good on them for trying. It was more than I would ever do.
(This is also the story of how I found my Right Work, my True Face, and my Second Heart.)
Long, long ago in Wales, there lived a goddess named Aranrhod, who insisted on her virginity.
Math the Magician, ruler of all the land, required virgins as footstools to ease his impotence. Shrubbery, nests of baby mice or a mushroom might have worked just as well, but it was virgins Math demanded. Having lost his last maiden to a love affair, he now sought a fresh prie-dieu of unquestionable purity. To prove it, he put prospective employees to a wand-leaping test, wherein Math’s divining rod wriggled on the floor like a snake if the morwyn had known a man.
“It’s hard to find good help these days,” Math lamented, as girl after girl failed the exam. Although previously no one had much cared about this virgo intacta business, unfortunately, Math’s personal problems were beginning to affect social mores, causing folk to wonder if there wasn’t something to this notion of virtue, after all. Maybe young women ought to be looking after their hymens and their so-called honor. This was a limnal era in the history of gods and goddesses; things were changing right and left.
At any rate, Math’s acolyte and nephew Gwydyon offered his sister Aranrhod, an avowed virgin. She came to Math’s court, resentful, but confident.
As Aranrhod leaped over the stick, a baby boy dropped from beneath her skirts. Math grabbed for it, but it ran away into the sea. This child became the god Dylan. His fate is another tale for another time.
No one saw Gwydyon snatch up a second, smaller infant that slipped from Aranrhod as she stalked from Math’s hall. Gwydyon tucked the baby into his cloak, sneaked away from the ruckus and hid it in a closet in his chamber. It was so small, no bigger than a walnut, that he forgot all about it, until one night he heard it cry, then saw a tiny fist poke out from under rumpled clothing. Immediately, Gwydyon wanted the child. Here was a son in whom he could vest all his knowledge and desires, his hopes for the future.
“Get out of my house with that creature!” Aranrhod shouted at Gwydyon, who held the beautiful baby up for approval. “I’m not interested in children. I don’t care to be saddled with nappies and nursing!” She stamped her foot and turned her back. “What’s more it’s a boy! What do I want with a boy when I have sworn to live only with women?”
Aranrhod pointed toward the door and glowered at her brother.
“Leave now and take that squalling mess with you!”
“The child will be outcast,” Gwydyon protested. “He won’t exist without a name bestowed on him by his mother. That’s the law.”
“Let him be nameless.”
“You are an evil, wicked, unnatural mother.”
“Piffle! I am not a mother at all! I’m a virgin. Whether I’ve had relations with a man has nothing to do with it and is nobody’s business but my own. You’ve been around Uncle Math too long. I am a virgin because my body belongs entirely to me. And I have chosen not to have children, thank you. You can’t even prove this thing is mine. I certainly will not give it a name. Now get out!”
Aranrhod pushed Gwydyon through the door. He descended the steep steps of her sea castle clutching the infant. The women he passed noted a strange clicking that issued from his forehead just above his bushy eyebrows. This was the sound of Gwydyon’s big brain at work.
When his mind churned, it did so noisily, because Gwydyon was a God of Science. Had there been such gadgets in those long-ago days, the linear efforts of Gwydyon’s grey matter would have resembled a clock’s.
Gwydyon clicked and mused, mused and clicked and rocked the cradle with his foot. The lad had to have a name. Tick-tocking toward an idea, Gwydyon made a note to himself to remember that when he had the power, he would dispense with all matriarchal laws. There would be a New Order. Uncle Math had started the process of social change, and Gwydyon would finish it.
The child, meanwhile, was growing at a startling rate. Within weeks he had outgrown his cradle. In the few brief months it took Gwydyon to hatch a scheme to trick Aranrhod, her nameless son had already celebrated his seventh birthday.
Gwydyon glamoured a sturdy little ship from bracken and seaweed and set sail to his sister’s castle by the sea, boy in tow. Disguised as a maker of marvelous shoes, and gambling on the cold draughts and chilly stone floors of seaside castles, he contrived to bring his sister aboard the boat. It took some persuading, but at last she arrived to try on a pair of toasty sheepskin slippers. And looking up from her lacings, Aranrhod saw the shoemaker’s child shoot a golden wren from the sky. As he raised his little arms and aimed his miniature bow and arrow at the bird, light seemed to shimmer all around him like a halo. He so resembled the sun that Aranrhod exclaimed in amazement and called him Llew of the Skillful Hand.
Thus Gwydyon’s boy was named.
And Aranrhod’s anger was indescribable.
It was merely a matter of a few more months before Llew Skillful Hand had reached the age of fourteen when boys are ready for their rites of manhood. But according to that old bugaboo, matriarchal law, manhood could only be conferred when a mother armed her son. In other words, a boy became a man when his mother said so. Perhaps if the mother were dead, a grandmother, aunt or older sister could stand in, but Aranrhod was quite alive. Too much so for Gwydyon’s taste.
He retreated to his clicking and musing. It didn’t take long for him to conjure an illusion of warships ready to assault Aranrhod’s castle. Terror overcame the women in the household as the ships approached, for they had no defense. Again disguised, Gwydyon and Llew arrived by land just in the nick of time and pretended to offer assistance.
Aranrhod could not have been more grateful and gracious. She brought arms and with her own hand dressed the boy in sword and armor, helmet and shield.
The illusion of warships evaporated from the horizon. Aranrhod was fooled again.
And fit to be tied.
“You continue to try to force me into a motherhood I don’t want! You persist in violating my autonomy!” Aranrhod raged on and on while Gwydyon laughed at her.
She tossed copper chamber pots and hurled brass plates and bronze vases at Gwydyon’s head. He ducked and laughed. She shrieked and yelled. Yet she could not help but notice, through the black blaze of her anger, that Llew was a fine boy. Quiet, handsome, virile and agile. Not too clever yet, and a bit too dominated by Gwydyon — but who wasn’t? Had she not been in such a righteous stew about the question of self-determination, Aranrhod might have considered Llew a young man any mother would be proud of.
But the point remained: Aranrhod did not wish to be a mother.
Llew stood innocently by observing the scene: his mother’s tantrum and Gwydyon’s mocking. For all he’d been told that Aranrhod was a monster, an abnormal woman and an obstacle to his happiness, Llew felt some sympathy and admiration for her. She was large and glorious. Stubborn, forthright and independent. She positively glowed. If she showed a bad temper, well, hadn’t she been tricked twice? Llew noted how strong and proud his mother was compared to the mincing maids Gwydyon occasionally brought home for pleasure or the miserable, insipid virgins Math used for furniture.
Suddenly, Aranrhod stopped her stamping and throwing and shrieking and yelping. She took a deep breath and spoke in a voice of such cold, hard menace even Gwydyon gulped in mid-guffaw and shuddered.
“Since you are so determined to steal women’s sovereignty, I now swear a fate upon the boy,” Aranrhod growled.
“Llew Skillful Hand will never have a wife of the race that is on the Earth today.”
And here the story of Blodeuwedd begins.
Even more difficult would be to shape one who bore no resemblance whatsoever to Aranrhod. She must be compliant, submissive and manageable, with no will or ambition beyond the attendance of Llew. She must perceive and fulfill his wishes even before he’d wished them. Obviously, Gwydyon needed help.
Math the Magician resembled a gluttonous frog sitting on his throne, swollen legs resting in the lap of his current virgin.
“It won’t be easy,” he said, and Gwydyon’s overstressed brain clicked wildly.
“Pipe down, please, I’m concentrating.” Math dug his heel into the crotch of his maiden ottoman and rested his chins in his plump, bejeweled hand. His tongue flicked in and out and his huge, popped eyes rolled back in his head. At last, he opened them and grinned.
“Go pick the flowers of the Oak, Meadowsweet and Broom,” he told Gwydyon. “And plenty of them. We want a well-endowed morwyn.”
An odd request, not for what it was, but for what it omitted. The divine essence of flowers runs through every woman’s veins and is passed from womb to womb. Each woman carries within her the endlessly renewing spirit of Iris for wisdom, Heather to protect against violence, Raspberry to ease the pain of childbirth, Hyacinth to relieve grief, Foxglove for a strong heart, Lily for unconditional love, Rose for healing and the sight, Cowslip for wantonness and pleasure, Huckleberry for prophetic dreams, Loosestrife for peace, Mugwort for authority, Moss for prosperity, Marigold for freedom, and to understand the language of the birds, Lilac for its own dear sake and more.
The bouquets of feminine power are the stuff of constant creation. Yet none of these was included in Math’s prescription, for this was to be a woman conceived and ripened outside the womb with plants that are metaphysically masculine.
“We are manufacturing an ideal creature in our own image,” the magician reminded his nephew. “Why muck up the works with female particulars? We’ve got Meadowsweet for love and happiness and that’s enough emotion to guarantee that Llew’s new wife will adore him. Now let’s get to work!”
They began, of course, with Oak, for no sentient being can be formed without the primordial tree of perfect speech, greatest intelligence, metamorphosis and transformation. Carefully pouring acorns, leaves, bark and petals into a huge cauldron, they tossed and folded until the elements of the plant were thoroughly blended. They added two bushels of the Meadowsweet, nine handfuls of yeast, a liter of cow’s milk, four dozen eggs, three cups honey and a bucket of their own urine and spit and whipped the mixture into a peck and a half of finely chopped Broom.
Math and Gwydyon muttered their spells and sifted the finest porcelain powder into the blossoms. They stirred and poked and kneaded and pinched. Till at last, she came into focus.
And they named the woman lying on their wizard-slab, inert as a furloughed puppet, Blodeuwedd.
The proud parents sprinkled Blodeuwedd with water and sheep’s blood. The florets, foliage, buds, seeds, pollen and wilted petals unfolded and burst into life.
She sat up and stared with rare eyes, white and violet as the Meadowsweet, languid and heavy as drooping stems in early summer. She smiled at Math and Gwydyon, meek and malleable, bright as the evergreen Broom on a snowy heath.
“Papa,” Math crooned, pointing to himself and Gwydyon.
“Papa,” Blodeuwedd repeated.
“Let’s validate the experiment,” Gwydyon suggested.
She passed every exam (gentle, easy tests, for Blodeuwedd had, after all, just been born). Through each trial, request and instruction, she was relentlessly nice, remorselessly genial, submissive, acquiescent and daughterly.
“Just to be sure Aranrhod hasn’t pulled any of her bossy witchery on us, let’s conclude with the wand-leaping test,” said Math, eyeing Gwydyon, and Gwydyon glanced back at Math, each briefly suspicious of the other until they remembered that neither had yet been alone with the girl.
The wand never quivered but lay still as stick.
The next day, they married Blodeuwedd to Llew.
No one compared with Blodeuwedd. None could look at her without sad sighing, without feeling acutely his or her own withering youth and beauty. The other women at the wedding feast were somehow unable to open their hearts to this motherless piece of perfection. In Blodeuwedd’s presence they became muddled and uprooted.
Llew was glad to have a wife and all the amenities that accompanied his new social status. From named boy to armed man, he had graduated to married landowner, a young patriarch with choice property and a castle of his own, given him by Uncle Math. Llew knew nothing except what he’d been taught by Gwydyon. Yet as he stood beside his gorgeous, demure bride, his mind turned to Aranrhod. Was Blodeuwedd not more of an object than a woman? Then again, she seemed to mirror Llew; she was his gynandrous double. He shook off his shyness, pushed his mother’s image from his mind, puffed up his chest, faced his bride and settled into marriage as he was expected.
It was not altogether difficult. In bed, Llew found Blodeuwedd tractable and docile. Had he been more experienced in love, he might have sensed that she was somehow absent, as if the Oak were still at work, continuing its transformation. Yet she was sultry and torpid as honey and milk, a passive partner of whom Llew had no clear reason to be disgruntled.
Day after day, Blodeuwedd performed the job for which she’d been fabricated. The Broom provided her with soldierly obedience and tenacity, as well as housewifely industry. In fact, her clean and orderly home was the envy of all.
And although Gwydyon perceived a lack of chemistry between Llew and his bride, the God of Science pushed all doubts from his mind, choosing instead to be satisfied with his custom-built daughter-in-law, who met every qualification he and Math had ever dreamed of in a woman.
So time passed uneventfully. Llew prospered. Gwydyon retired to his experiments and noisy ruminations and there was not a peep out of Aranrhod. Only Math was unhappy as virgin after virgin deserted him, and the acceptable morwyn grew younger and younger.
As ever in spring, the daffodils and narcissus returned and Llew Skillful Hand left Blodeuwedd to go hunting. She watched him ride out, smooth and fresh and fair, bright and shining as daybreak. She waved and blew kisses until he disappeared over the horizon. Then she turned briskly to her wifely duties, organizing the servants for the planting, milking, cheesemaking, scrubbing and bread baking. She took up her weaving by a window. She was perennially pleasant, neither happy nor sad.
Evening fell, and as Blodeuwedd ordered the tallows lighted, she heard the sound of hunting horns. She was mildly surprised that Llew was back so soon. He was never unlucky in the hunt and stayed the course until exhaustion demanded his return. It did not occur to Blodeuwedd to worry that Llew might have suffered some injury. As happiness and sorrow had been neglected in her manufacture, so had anxiety.
Blodeuwedd put on her prettiest gown and poured a cup of ale with which to meet her husband at the door. But instead of Llew, there stood another fellow, who looked her up and down with astonishment — as all men did. Blodeuwedd thought nothing of it.
“I am Goronwy the Staunch, Lord of Penllyn,” the man stuttered. Her loveliness had rendered him breathless. “My men and I have been hunting near this castle and we seek a resting place for the night.”
Goronwy was stout and greying and his features looked as if they had traveled many places. He was not handsome and glowing like Llew, rather he was so ugly as to be magnificent. Whereas Llew recalled a sunny day, Goronwy brought forth visions of a hoary mountain tempest. His face was crusty as bark, and black stubble dotted his chin like lichen. He was cousin to the gnarled Oak and the sap in Blodeuwedd’s veins exploded with recognition.
She shoved the alehorn into his hands and squeezed her eyes. She imagined her tongue playing in the large gap between Goronwy’s teeth. Imagination was unfamiliar to her and it frightened her.
She pulled herself together and curtsied the stranger through the door.
“The gods know we will be disgraced for letting this chieftain go elsewhere at this hour and not asking him in,” she told the servants. She sent them to fetch water for his bath and prepare a supper.
Blodeuwedd’s heart crashed and thumped. While Goronwy bathed, she ran to her looking glass and pulled her hair up this way and down that and braided it and twisted it with ribbons. She fussed and fumed and shoved at her well-endowed cleavage and smeared it with powdered rose petals and paced the floor and whispered “Mine! Mine!” and knew not what she said, for she had never wanted anything or anyone before in her short life.
They dined alone and Blodeuwedd was radiant. She glanced shyly at Goronwy with her Meadowsweet eyes and batted her lashes and sucked slowly and seductively at strings of meat. He could not stop staring at her, until at last, he made bold to place his hand on her knee and she reached down and guided it up her skirts and soon they were kissing and fumbling and stumbling to her bedchamber.
Blodeuwedd came alive. The Oak had reached its pitch. Blodeuwedd chose Goronwy and by her choice, her humanity emerged. Half-baked and presented to Llew as the chef d’oeuvre of men’s ideals, she had been tame and biddable. For the first time, her flesh tingled like true skin, at once pliant and solid. Her slavish, sluggish sheep’s blood — toxified by male urine and spit — now stormed wildly, clean and fierce as a waterfall. And although Goronwy, caressing every inch of her body, muttered again and again of Blodeuwedd’s perfection, she felt gloriously imperfect. Marvelously real.
But when it was over, a bitter taste crept into Blodeuwedd’s mouth. The sour taste of marital tyranny. The terrible knowledge that she was disposable, a pretty pawn in Gwydyon’s game. And somewhere deep in Blodeuwedd’s bones, the belligerence and stamina of Broom began to stir.
The next day, Goronwy rose to leave, but Blodeuwedd clung to him and begged him to stay. He could not resist. They slept together that night and the next and the next, and Blodeuwedd could not get enough. The days with Goronwy passed in long talk. No longer was Blodeuwedd indifferent. She expressed opinions; she had ideas; she laughed. She discovered passion, foolishness and friendship. Finally, she confessed her origins and told Goronwy that with or without him, she wanted nothing more than to be fully a woman. Goronwy was of the old school of matriarchal law and Blodeuwedd’s story offended him, for Gwydyon’s tampering was an offense against Nature. He embraced and comforted her as she wept. They gazed at each other and there was no part of them that did not feel love.
Thus, on the night before Llew was expected home, Goronwy made this suggestion to Blodeuwedd: she must discover how Llew could be killed, for he was a child of the goddess and it would be no easy task to get rid of him. She did not balk, for killing Llew, she knew, would be her only path to freedom.
Goronwy the Staunch returned to Penllyn and Llew returned home to an apparently happy wife. Her voice was louder, she was more talkative and even witty. He had never seen her be anything but deferential and even-tempered, but now and then he noticed a darkness pass over her face that reminded him of Aranrhod. She seemed less and less a feminine duplicate of himself, and thus he wanted her more and more.
One night, soon after Llew’s return, Blodeuwedd turned to him and said, “I have had nightmares, horrible omens. Your absence this time was long and caused me to fret and dream of your death. I beg you, dear one, tell me how you can be killed so that I can protect you and sleep soundly.”
It did not occur to Llew to mistrust Blodeuwedd. She had been created by his father for his own pleasure, and Gwydyon, in Llew’s estimation, did not make mistakes and would never betray him. In the second instance, Llew was right. Gwydyon loved his boy above all possessions. So Llew curled into Blodeuwedd’s arms — arms that had been shaped especially for him — and said, “Don’t worry, my love. I can’t be killed indoors or out-of-doors or on a horse or on foot.”
“Well then,” Blodeuwedd sighed, “you can’t be killed at all.”
“Ah, but I can,” he laughed and told her that in order for him to die, he must be on the bank of a river with one foot on the back of a billy goat and the other on the rim of a tub, in which a bath had been prepared for him. The spear that could kill him would take a year to make. It could be carved, polished and sharpened only during full moons.
The next day, Blodeuwedd sent a trusted messenger to Goronwy. He worked the spear until it was perfect and at the end of a year, he sent word back to Blodeuwedd that all was ready.
“My lord,” Blodeuwedd said to Llew one night over dinner, “I am thinking of what you told me and how it might come about. If I prepare the bath, will you show me how you might stand on the goat and the edge of the tub? It seems a mean feat, indeed an impossible feat, and I need reassurance that you cannot do it and are therefore in no danger.”
Llew was proud. Gwydyon had spoiled and pampered him and while he had certain sweetness, too, he was a show-off, vain as high noon.
He not only agreed, he prodded Blodeuwedd to hurry while he flexed his biceps and stretched and strutted.
Blodeuwedd sent for Goronwy in secret and went to prepare the bath. She found the oldest, most slothful buck in the herd. Goronwy hid, while Blodeuwedd laughed and goaded Llew.
“Now I’ll see that I need not ever worry, for even you, my husband, agile as you are, cannot balance here like this.”
And she bathed him and ran her hands up and down his belly and back and when it was done and he was dripping wet, he leaped out of the tub and stood, one foot on the back of the snoozing billy goat, one foot on the rim of the tub, glowing with pride, while his penis, so recently cleaned and coddled, saluted the endeavor.
At once, Goronwy the Staunch rose to one knee and cast the spear full force at Llew and struck him in the side so that the shaft stuck out but the head stayed in. And Llew Skillful Hand gave a horrible scream and flew away in the form of an eagle and was not seen again.
Blodeuwedd and Goronwy spent happy days together — although, truth be told, there were fleeting moments when she wondered at his staunchness, an airtight manliness. Nonetheless, Blodeuwedd blossomed. Perhaps, in the gathering of Oak, Meadowsweet and Broom, detritus from the womanly blooms had drifted like weeds into her mix. She developed a smidgen of wisdom, a strong heart, a healing hand, a little insight and more. Nevertheless, she often wandered the halls of Goronwy’s castle, rootless, insubstantial, fictitious.
Blodeuwedd and Goronwy lived in peace and thrived together, for Gwydyon had not time, the energy nor the inclination for vengeance. He was searching for Llew. Days, weeks, months and a year passed, as the God of Science probed and analyzed the elements, and tried every manner of alchemy to locate his precious boy. And when all that failed, he took to walking and trooped over hill and dale, beating the bushes and calling and calling for Llew Skillful Hand.
One foggy day, in despair and grieving, Gwydyon came upon a white pig whom he knew to be the sow goddess, Cerridwen, ancient, venerated Mother. She was fat, ungainly and neglected, but her eyes were stern and kind. In spite of his arrogance and impiety, his brazen violation of Nature, the sow took pity on him, for she, too, had children she loved and some she’d lost.
She led him — slowly, for by now Gwydyon was exhausted — up a stream and toward a valley, where she stopped to feed on rotten flesh and maggots that fell to the ground from a cliff. On the cliff was a nest, where an eagle perched and each time it shook, worms and rotten flesh fell away and these the sow goddess gobbled as offerings.
The raptor was golden and bright and shining but its wing hung limp and dragging. Gwydyon suspected he was Llew. He stood beneath the cliff and raised his arms in an arch to the hazy sun and sang:
An oak grows between two lakes,
Dark sky and glen.
If I speak truly,
This comes from Llew’s feathers.
Down and tissue and bits of gore fell from the eagle as it dropped from the cliff to the top of a tree below. Gwydyon sang on:
An oak grows on a high plain,
Soaked by rain and putrefaction.
The oak supports the Crafts,
In its branches sits Llew Skillful Hand.
The crippled eagle dropped to the lowest branch of the tree. And Gwydyon sang again:
An oak grows on a slope,
The refuge of a handsome prince.
If I speak truly,
Llew will come to my lap.
The eagle dropped to Gwydyon’s knee and the God of Science struck him with his magic wand and the bird changed into human form. Llew was skin and bone and sickly and Gwydyon wrapped the hole where Goronwy’s spear had entered his side and took the youth home. He fed him potions and nursed him until he was well again.
In a year’s time, Llew Skillful Hand rose from his sickbed and went to Math.
“Lord, it is time to demand compensation from the man who did me this injury.”
Math rumbled and farted and scratched his sole against his virgin footstool.
“And Blodeuwedd?” he asked.
“That is my lord Gwydyon’s problem,” Llew answered, “for he made the girl to be my plaything, but she was my wife and I came to love her, though she could not love me. I daresay she was missing some component and that lack was neither her fault nor mine. No, my lord Math, I will take Goronwy and try to persuade Gwydyon to leave the woman alone.”
But there was no persuading Gwydyon. What he had engineered, he would destroy, and his mind clicked with plans of revenge. Blodeuwedd had emerged far enough from the shadows to rebel against his authority and now he feared her and could never forgive her.
Llew Skillful Hand gathered his forces and rode to Penllyn and surrounded Goronwy’s castle. Goronwy the Staunch guided Blodeuwedd and her attendants out a secret passage that led to safety in the mountains. Then he returned to his battlements and stood his ground against Llew Skillful Hand, but Llew’s warriors overcame him. Goronwy the Staunch sent messengers to ask Llew Skillful Hand if he would accept land or gold for the injury put upon him, but Llew refused.
“You must come to where I was when you cast the spear at me, while I stand where you stood and you must let me throw a spear at you. That is the least I will accept.”
So Goronwy went where Llew had been, but there was no one to bathe him before he balanced on the back of the buck goat and the rim of the tub.
Thus, he made one request: he asked that Llew allow him to put a stone between himself and the blow. And Llew agreed, but he threw the spear with such vigor and jealousy that it pierced both the stone and Goronwy the Staunch. The Lord of Penllyn died and the stone still stands on the bank of Avon Gynvael with the spear stuck through it and so it is called Llech Oronwy.
Meanwhile, Blodeuwedd and her women ran from the castle to the mountain sanctuary. But Gwydyon, riding fast behind them, enchanted the attendants so that they could no longer travel on their feet, but had to walk on their hands. When they reached the river, the women drowned, every one.
Gwydyon leaped off his horse and chased Blodeuwedd. He seized her by the hair. He spun her three times left, three times right.
Seven times he raised his hand to kill her. But he could not do it, for she was a product of his imagination.
He held her by the shoulders and shook her, as if to loosen and detach the magic, the petals and leaves and pollen and buds and seeds that fashioned her. And Blodeuwedd yielded her body like a broken branch and neither was she afraid nor did she cry out. No longer did she care whether she lived or died, for she had been truly alive only briefly and then not long enough to cultivate her soul.
“I will not kill you!” Gwydyon screamed. “I will do worse. I will let you go in the shape of a bird to punish you for the shame you have brought upon Llew Skillful Hand. Never will you show your face in daylight for fear of other birds. They will be hostile to you and it will be their nature to maul and molest you wherever they find you. You will eat hair, bones and gristle!”
And Gwydyon heaved Blodeuwedd high into the air. She rose, hovered and turned into an owl.
A flawless creature, soft and feathery, with muscular, soundless flight. Blodeuwedd was real at last, though still and ever banished to half-light, veiled by night. And she is still called Blodeuwedd, and Gwydyon fears her yet, for she can see in all directions. Her owlflower heart beats in harmony with the moon. She rises suddenly out of the shades, a winged vapor.
Retold from The Mabinogion.