What Is Really Challenging: Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi

The Rise Of Skywalker, supposedly the last of the mainline Star Wars saga is coming soon. And even so, people are still talking about Rian Johnson, and The Last Jedi. Even me. There is something about the eighth Star Wars film, and Rian Johnson’s own responses to fans that I’ve tried to explain, and put into words.

I mean, I even wrote an article for Sequart on The Last Jedi itself, and while it isn’t perfect, I knew the moment I saw it, it was going to become a classic: if only because of how controversial it was, how final it felt, and jarring, and experimental in some ways, while being conventional in others.

Then, I came across this article from IndieWire. It’s title is practically a thesis statement, and it doesn’t hide what it is: Rian Johnson Says Catering to Fans, Rather Than Challenging Them, Is a ‘Mistake.’ This title, combined with the subheading “I want to be shocked, I want to be surprised, I want to be thrown off-guard,” left me with quite a few strong thoughts on the matter, and I want to attempt to communicate them as clearly, and lucidly — as both a writer with critical background, and as a Star Wars fan myself — as much as possible.

A lot of what I am going to write is something that has already been written, or talked about, before. After reading the article, which derives its points from an interview Johnson made, and then states that some critics apparently believe The Rise of Skywalker is “disrespectful” to Johnson, his work, and the originality of what he was attempting to do, I was reminded of something.

In 2015, I took took classes in Ty Templeton’s Comic Book Bootcamp. And, in those classes, we learned many lessons not just about comics writing, but writing, world-building, and even franchise-making and supporting fandoms around it. It wasn’t completely indepth, but there was something Ty mentioned about “supporting a fan club.” Let me try to explain it as best I can recall.

Everyone likes to feel like they belong somewhere. Everyone, to some extent, also likes to feel smart, and informed, and included. Ty taught us about creating emblems, and certain recurring phrases, and the value of “always bringing a character home” each time for each new story or episode: figuratively, and literally. I don’t think about forty or so years, I need to explain how that concept particularly applies to a franchise like Star Wars. But there is something in particular about this that I want to make clear.

A lot of the time, fans will speculate on a work, or details within it. And, sometimes, they will come up with an idea of where something is going to go … and they will actually be either close to it — or completely right. And especially in this Age of Information, these speculations and their conclusions are more accessible and widespread: along with the means of more rapid and open communication.

There is nothing quite like figuring something out, and realizing that you were right. And, while some fans or audience members might be like Rian Johnson and say something like: “‘oh, okay,’ it might make me smile and make me feel neutral about the thing and I won’t really think about it afterwards, but that’s not really going to satisfy me,” there is another contingent that will feel pleased, and enlightened. They might even feel a sense of belonging to that fan club. Of course, you can take that too far as well into the pedantic and condescending, but I think every story has a common source: especially human stories like mythology. Like Star Wars.

Back in ancient times, if you look at Greece, you have plays being created. And everyone knew about Oedipus Rex, Agamemnon, Lysistrata and the like from oral tales but they still watched the plays. The point I’m trying to make is that even if someone does predict a story, or they want something to happen, you can still give it to them … in the way that you want to give it to them. You focus on the details, on the buildup, the pacing of the narrative, on especially the character development. You don’t do it to give the fans what they want when and how they want it. Likewise, you don’t change the story, or the way something is going to happen just to “subvert expectations.” You do it to make a point, or make an interesting twist: to focus on the story itself.

There are a lot of interesting elements in The Last Jedi that I appreciate, such as Johnson’s critique of the cycle of violence in Star Wars itself. There is a bit of preaching and condescension, and the mess that is Canto Bight but there is also the meditations on the Force itself, the stop motion illustrating an ecosystem and circle of life and death, some words about self-actualization, and even a metaphysical look on how to break out of the cycle. Then you have the milking creature, and Luke Skywalker not learning anything after the lessons of thirty years ago when dealing with his nephew.

But all the Star Wars films are flawed in some way. I mean, I don’t even have to go into the Prequels now, do I? Or even some of the questionable decisions about clunkily revamping character origins like Ventress’ or Maul’s in The Clone Wars cartoons.

I can see, for instance, that The Last Jedi was meant to be an Empire Strikes Back as Johnson put it in the article. You have a story and even advertising build up to make you think A New Hope was going to lead to the enemy being defeated in the next film, but then you get that bombshell: only Johnson attempted to do this by subverting tropes and themes in a very heavy-handed, but clever manner.

The problem is, to imagine Yoda stating this point as I did in my other article, cleverness does not always for good storytelling make. And sometimes what some might see as challenging, can also be perceived as condescending.

This is especially true when you consider all the build up and hype towards Rey’s origins, Snoke’s and then … nothing. It’s supposed to show that those expectations are irrelevant and it is the current adventure and the concepts of overcoming war and hatred that matter more, as well as friendship and love being ascendant. But they are particularly abstract concepts. So is the cycle between good and evil, of course, but then we have the other issue.

What changed as a result of The Last Jedi?

Did the concept of war get challenged? Did the Light and the Dark Sides of the Force get scrutinized and be seen beyond a simple binary good verses evil dichotomy? Did Rey and Kylo Ren realize they didn’t have to be enemies and go into a Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis Hegelian dialectic: two opposites meeting to make something new, and challenging for the next film. According to the Indiewire article, as I mentioned critics are annoyed that Johnson’s innovations are seemingly being downplayed to “pander” to fan and fandom expectations for Star Wars in The Rise of Skywalker. However, it was Johnson himself who kept Rey and Kylo Ren on different sides. Rey is still on the Light Side. Kylo Ren is still motivated by the Dark Side. Perhaps they are challenged, as fans are supposedly challenged, but in the end their resolve is more or less the same: except for the regret in Kylo, which doesn’t matter as he continues on from that point until, presumably, the next movie by J.J. Abrams.

I could make a compelling case that Johnson uses the aesthetic or the seeming of innovation and subversion, but really just makes opposite, contrary trope choices that ultimately lead right back to the status quo. And this seeming of change or challenge, doesn’t really change anything. And it wouldn’t if it were simply a standalone film with its own story, but the issue is that it is supposed to be part of a nine film saga arc in which seven of those films said something else entirely. It’s jarring. And it does sometimes feel like he is subverting tropes to make it look clever, instead of actually focusing on character development and working with what came before, and making something cohesive after.

It reminds me of those creators that imitated the style and edginess of Frank Miller and Alan Moore’s comics works, but didn’t really look at the content or spirit of them. I’m also reminded of something EA Games apparently did where, apparently, when some fans figured out a major plot point in the Mass Effect series, the creators went out of the way to change it so as not to seem “unoriginal” or to have people guess their story, and not want to play their game. But they forgot the lesson: that the fandom, in solving that puzzle, would only make it more interesting because even they couldn’t realize all of the details, and it’s one thing to know something — like an ancient Greek tragic story — but it is a whole other thing to see it play out, even with that knowledge or good guessing.

I don’t know. Sometimes, I think that Rian Johnson in how he has dealt with the criticism of his work can be as condescending as some of the fans who also have a tremendous sense of self-entitlement.

Either way, it is all right to like The Last Jedi or this Sequel Trilogy. It is also valid to dislike it. But I do think that if it is ridiculous to think one is insulting a fandom over the change in a film in a forty year old franchise, it is just as silly to believe a writer is being slighted when something else is being written in a different tone from his own work: which is what he did to begin with, and even then he ultimately went right back to where it all started despite that finality of a child with a broom sweeping away the past, readying for the next words to be shown on a screen.

I’m Not Locked In Here With You: Todd Phillips’ Joker

So I wrote an article for Joker on Sequart a little while ago now, but while they eventually will post it, I have some other more personal thoughts on some of the themes in the film: mainly why I like it, and why I relate to it.

I tend to call this Joker, or this earlier phase of him, the Arthur Fleck Joker. He isn’t the same as the Mark Hamill, the Heath Ledger, the Jack Nicholson, or the foolish Cesar Romero depictions. He isn’t even the comics Joker, any of them. This is the phase, the dress rehearsal, before the agent of chaos that we are going to get. I’ve always been fascinated, you see, with watching something in the process of being created, or creating itself. I find the best kinds of art, or artists, are those that you can see are constantly working on themselves. Mark Twain has a quote about knowing the details behind the creation of a miracle, and how it can take away from the simple joys of just experiencing it, yet I am someone who likes to — to borrow a phrase from Neil Gaiman — see the work backstage, and how it adds to the performance that we are given.

This Joker is a moment of realization in progress, of living two different lies at least, and then finding out who he actually is. That is what I took away from this film. Let me be clear about a few things though: I do not romanticize the Joker that kills people for amusement, or is an abuser. The one in this film is very different from those other depictions, though there are some similarities with regards to his more destructive actions.

But I really, like I said, love the process. We see Arthur wearing the clown makeup when he is at his gig helping a shop sell its wares, but a man wearing a clown costume does not a Joker make. Even the nervous, involuntary laughter doesn’t make the Joker. Not even the killing of those abusive rich men out of self-preservation, or the one out of a sense of street justice makes for the Clown Prince of Crime. The flirtation with this image, the sensuality of it in the restroom with blood-splattered on his face, his wig and clown nose gone, and his ragged elemental features at that point are a start. But he’s still Arthur. He still wants to be loved. He still wants to be a comedian, and to stop hurting.

Even the white makeup he has on when he kills the person who betrayed him isn’t quite there yet, and this after he discovers what he is — where he came from, how he was betrayed far worse before — and preparing for what he is going to do. He wants revenge, but he also wants the pain to stop: for the joke that is his life to finally end. That is the tipping point.

I would even say by the time he makes it to Murray’s show — to the man he used to look up as a father-figure before he publicly humiliated his non-neurotypical behaviour on television for laughs, and didn’t think anything of it — and when he decides to kill him instead of himself on national television, he’s still not Joker. But what started as practice in that restroom, and then choreograph when he danced down those flights of stairs, and then self-awareness by putting on a clown mask to hide in the discontent of Gotham’s lower class that made his actions against the rich into a memetic force, followed by one great bellow of selfish vengeance on a man and system that failed him … ends when he gets out of that car crash, and he uses the blood coming out of him to make a bloody smile on the costume whose lipstick had already faded. It was cheap and artificial. Now, the blood makes that twisted smile real.

Watchmen is bandied about a lot in terms of comics references. Hell, it even made it into the title of this Blog post. I don’t need it to sell Joker that’s already sold its own soul to the Devil of our collective imagination. But there is this idea in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ work with the vigilante Rorschach. He starts out with a troubled past of childhood abuse as well, but that doesn’t make him Rorschach. It doesn’t make him Rorschach when Kitty Genovese is brutally raped and murdered publicly and her neighbours do nothing, and he vows to become a masked hero to stop other such incidents. He’s still just Walter Kovacs, an abused child taken to foster care, wearing the mask of Rorschach. Rorschach is still his alter-ego.

It isn’t until he hunts for a kidnapped baby, and finds out that the kidnapper fed the child to his dogs, and he burns the man alive that he isn’t Walter Kovacs anymore. He realizes he is Rorschach. And when he is hiding in plain sight as that Prophet of Doom in the background, Rorschach wears Walter Kovacs as his mask, just as the Joker wears Arthur Fleck’s face as a mask at the end of Todd Phillips’ film.

We can go into how in Star Wars Darth Sidious was the real self of the man who wore the mask of the politician Palpatine, or how Batman’s secret identity is Bruce Wayne — though that last is highly debatable, though appropriate given that this article deals a great deal with his arch-nemesis. What I’m trying to illustrate is that none of these alter-egos becoming true identities happened overnight, or had always been their true selves. Parts of these personalities, these culmination of experiences, were there but there were other circumstances, and reactions to those events that precipitated the processes that made these happen.

That is how I understand a lot of what I’ve been going through this particular year. I don’t romanticize these characters. I think there are aspects of them, as archetypes, that are really fascinating and relatable, but they are not heroes. The Joker is not a good person, even if there are parts of him — of this one, and even his “burn everything bad to the ground” or “watch this flawed, disgusting world burn” attitude that my Id can sympathize with.

I guess the best way to describe it is that 2019 has been a different year for me. I’ve new people. I’ve had some new experiences, or explored them in a whole other way. I’ve been angry, and scared, and frustrated. I’ve delved into that fear. I’ve confronted it. I’ve pushed my comfort zone. I’ve worn my makeup and my masks. But I’ve realized that identities, especially those that we associate with things and events, are fluid. They change. And trauma in particular is a massive force behind some of those changes. There are ways to explore that power — trauma — in controlled environments with calculation and experimentation. Writing is one of those outlets, and the confines of the imagination. But sometimes it’s also trading stories and interactions with like-minded people. Sometimes it’s putting old selves behind you. Sometimes it’s realizing you are angry, and accepting it, and knowing that you are changing.

I think the most painful thing is trying to hold onto the person that you were, with all those experiences — good or bad — to stay in the past, because you will never be that person again. You will keep changing. That’s part of your nature. Some core tenets will remain the same, of course. But you will not have the same experiences again. We hold on out of fear, or resentment, or a genuine sense of overwhelming purposelessness. Where do we go from here? What do we do? And why is it I have this inclination to know where I can go, or what I can do, but not quite get there before … something? Right?

This year, I felt myself let go of a lot of attachments and realize some things are gone. And that they, most likely, needed to be gone. I still have to deal with more of these due to logistics, but I now understand that I don’t feel the same about them as I did. I don’t feel the way I used to, because very naturally I’m no longer that person. And that’s not a bad thing. I can still feel sad about it, even angry, but it doesn’t change anything beyond whatever it is I do next.

I’ve been busy, confronting those parts, dealing with the anxiety. I have fascinating friends and explorations. And I’m lucky. I felt my old self beginning to wane, to fade, but to also be subsumed by my new choices, and activities. It’s sad and you mourn it, but there is no other way to go on: even if you do need to remember to pace yourself. Imagine being Arthur Fleck, though, and realizing that your old self never really existed to begin with. Maybe it’s not that different, as nothing is permanent. It’s not a science, but I will argue with you that it can be art.

And that’s what I’m making. Even if I don’t write as much as I used to, or stay indoors as much in front of my computer, I am still expressing myself, and thus making art. I might have been wearing masks, but they are closer to being who I am now than where I was. And even despite that, masks aren’t false things. They are organic and we are all different people in different situations.

The New Year is coming up. I actually had myself made up as the Joker a while ago, and this great, rumbling laugh came from my chest. I’ve dressed as the Crow, but as people like to quote from that movie and perhaps even the comic from which it came “it can’t rain all the time.” The Crow isn’t supposed to smile, apparently. But I laugh. I love to laugh. But I also like to be between states, and know how the meat is made, or destroyed. I like to hide in plain sight, and plan things out. But sometimes, when I can get past the fear I just go with it accordingly.

I’ve actually liked 2019. It’s so far been a good, but challenging year. I will keep shedding more of the old as I go on, and it won’t be easy. But we all know that “laughter” has an extra letter in front of it sometimes. And it isn’t so much that I’m trapped here with my challenges.

It’s that they are trapped here with me. And, when I can, I intend to have my fun.Laughing Me

On the Twilight of Alan Moore’s Superheroes: A Thank You

This was originally going to be a series of Tweets to Leah Moore, who is awesome, but after sitting down and thinking about it a little while longer, I decided to write something a little more substantial about this.

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’ve really loved many of Alan Moore’s works, both his comics writing, and his prose. There’s been a lot of talk lately about superheroes, about whether or not the superhero genre in film — as discussed at length by Martin Scorsese, and in which I touch on in what will soon be my own article on Todd Phillips’ Joker — or in the comics medium, as has been covered by Alan Moore, at length, are legitimate.

I’ve had many thoughts about the comics medium, and the superhero genre, as well as Alan Moore’s words and works. I haven’t always agreed with everything he’s said, or did, but I will never deny the fact that his writing is genius, with layers of meaning and nuance, that informed my creativity and imagination personally, and through other favourite creators that I’ve also followed.

Leah Moore, the co-creator of Albion, Wild Girl, and Conspiracy of Ravens with her collaborator and husband John Reppion, recently published her own perspective on her father Alan Moore’s views on superheroes in comics and their presence in film and pop culture, as well his recent stance on voting in the British elections against Brexit, and the turmoil of it engulfing the entire nation of England.

I don’t have much to add to her words except for the anecdotes that really stick out at me from her words. I think that experiences she has, and had, with him: about his glee in finding old superhero comics, the creased pages of well-read and loved comic books he had on hand, the geeky nature of him as he took his knowledge of the geopolitical — of complex and third dimensional world-building — and applied it to the icons and inspirations of his childhood, giving those stories his tone and his voice, and all the little moments where he would share snippets of his work with her, clever lines that he was proud of, all the winks and nudges that we saw faintly in his captions and dialogue but she got to see personally and first-hand through his genuine love of not only the comics medium and what it could potentially continue to become, but for also the superhero characters that he left employment for to pursue a financially-unsure career in comics with which to work.

And it paid off. As a creator, he took a chance and with hard work and skill he not only made a living off his art, but he thrived. He achieved a dream. He took a series of risks, and I won’t pretend to understand the full implication of what that meant for him personally, or his family beyond anything I’ve read about in George Khoury’s The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore, and The Mindscape of Alan Moore documentary. But it cost him too.

Imagine that you are working with something you love, because you don’t see yourself doing anything else. You literally, integrally, can’t. Not forever. You work on your projects and you keep doing so, to the point where you are ill, to the point where it hurts, and you still keep going. And then, through a series of bureaucratic and legalistic convolutions, incompetence, and the greed of others you find yourself spending more time trying to survive than making the things that you want. Imagine getting blamed for plagiarizing something that you made ages before the complaint, or being told you will get your work reverted back to you only for it to never go out of print and have the company you worked for own it. Think about how you think you could have interacted with this company — or companies — and believed you came to a settlement, that you finally got this unpleasantness out of the way, and you are even thinking about adding more to the good work you did for them only for them to fuck you over further. And then, try looking back at what you once loved, that you made into a career, and being positive about it.

Of course, that is just my understanding of it and I know there are many other complexities involved in there. I’m not even saying that Alan Moore is always right, and like I said I don’t always agree with him. Superheroes, for instance, are like M. Night Shyamalan pointed out in what would become his Unbreakable film series, our modern society’s version of gods and demigods: beings of great power and different morality, but a bridge between the mortal and the immortality, between humanity and Nature, between hopes and stories. They have captivated us, these stories of heroes who do good, and terrible things, larger than life: our dreams and nightmares put into words, and panels, and dialogue balloons. It’s only the nineteenth century aesthetic of the strong man and the cape and tights have that altered the iconography, just as once auras of power around gods were symbolized by horns.

And Alan Moore knew this. He still does, even now. He explored what power would do to the psychology of an individual, and while it wasn’t always pleasant, he still kept some common decency, and the dare to dream big in many of his narratives. Unfortunately, many others looking at great comics works — like those displaying the innovation of Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns — only saw the dark and gritty, the grimdark, and believed that edginess was all that made these stories truly great.

Julian Darius, of Sequart, called this “comics revisionism”:  this deconstruction of the superhero to display the problematic and questionable elements of the superhero dream, while also keeping their humanity, characterization, and world-building at the forefront. Moore’s work had affected the superhero comics genre, and still does: even if a lot of the works after him — both in comics and film adaptations — only superficially borrow from that legacy.

I can talk about all of this, all day, really. But there are two things that really stick me about this discussion right now. The first is something Martin Scorsese said about film, which can be applied to stories. In his New York Times opinion piece I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema, Let Me Explain, with regards to his era of film-making he states “cinema was about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves. It was about confronting the unexpected on the screen and in the life it dramatized and interpreted, and enlarging the sense of what was possible in the art form.”

Aside from the fact that Scorsese goes on to talk about the danger of attempting to mass-manufacture a particular kind of story over and again, recycling it without innovation or introspection, his previous words are fascinating given how this is especially what Alan Moore — and some others inspired by him — actually brought to superhero characters and stories. Moore did, in fact, in the medium of comics bring spiritual revelation and contradictory, complex natures to superhero characters, and did his part to transform the medium itself by drawing into it not just continuity but a sense of literary canon — of sophistication — and a modernist voice that may well have not been there before. Seriously, Scorsese’s words above could have easily applied to moments in Watchmen, in V For Vendetta, in Promethea, and other works created by Moore. But I won’t go into them.

Instead, there is the other point I want to make. It is looking at Leah Moore’s words, about a man who liked to play with superheroes, who wanted to make meaningful stories out of them, who believed in the potential of an art-form, and in recent times claims that they are just the adolescent fantasies of nostalgic adults yearning for childhood, the tools of corrupt systems wanting to make a buck and rip-off their artist employees, and a medium that barely has any change or representation. I’m not going to debate the merits of these statements, though I disagree with the last point given how there are many forms of representation in comics now — though in DC and Marvel that’s still a give or take situation — but I just want to draw the attention that Leah Moore has brought to it: that someone who loved superheroes can’t stand them anymore, or at the very least if you go by League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Tempest, has a wry cynicism tempered by a wistful remembrance of more idealistic days long gone.

It’s sad. I’ve had my differences with Alan Moore’s work a few times, one time especially during Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century where I stopped reading him for a while. But it was never because of indifference, or because somehow I felt I was better than him. It was because it hurt. It hurt when he came in, and changed something to be grimmer, but more real. Because it struck me in a place where I was still holding onto hope. But it never occurred to me that he must have dealt with something similar, a few times already. This creator, who wove together entire worlds, who interviews almost self-derisively seemed to channel Frederic Wertham’s views on comics superheroes when looking back on his work, was saying something about these stories, and his art.

And I can’t help but wonder, like Leah Moore, if it would have been different if he had been treated better during his time writing in the industry. If we would have seen a Minutemen of his own creation, or more. But at the same time, these terrible experiences did get him to create other works. I love his Providence series, for instance, and I still want to get back into reading Jerusalem.

I guess I am getting older as well. I faced my Century a few times. I never got as far as Alan Moore did in my own creative work, and I don’t think at this point I ever will. In the end, I’m just glad. I’m glad I got to be some small part of his creation, like so many others, in just reading his work: in just interacting with it even in this tiny way. I’m also glad he is making his own works in other media now, such as his films. And when I came back to him, when he created that limited run in Crossed +100 and then Providence, it was like coming home to that older intellectual friend you don’t always agree with, but you feel enriched by spending that time together. And I never forget that it was his work, and those works that he informed, that got me back into comics to begin with: that saved me from completely dismissing them as juvenalia and relics of an immature childhood. Comics are so much more that. And I have creators like Alan Moore to thank for it.

All I can do now is keep following my own dreams, and the old stories, wherever they are go. After all, as a blue, naked man once said to the world’s most intelligent, if not wise, man in another time, another life. “Nothing ever ends.”

Aelith

Written and performed around last Halloween — or the Season of the Dead — by my bard in our Fifth Edition D&D game. 

There is a forlorn beauty within the White Pines,
filled with crumbling husks of majesty, and broken lines.
Now home to beasts, and creatures of many kinds,
it once claimed manses housing High Elven minds.

There were palatial homes almost grown from stone,
of which fabled mounds and toppled pillars are now their bone.
Numerous farms were once tiled by ancients under the trees,
but they, too these Elven farmers’ secrets, were worn away by
Time’s frigid Northern breeze.
This Kingdom, this Empire, spanned from North to West,
this flowering of High Elven civilization at its very best.

Now, there are only broken columns, and archway outlines reaching
for the sky,
as though these few still remain to beseech, and as of the world … why.
Why did this ageless, noble nation die?

This question is the breadth and width,
of the ancient tragedy of the Temple Warden,
of the High Elven warrior …
Aelith.

Long ago, before the Elves of the White Pines,
the Mountain Dwarves of Mordimeer came out from their mines,
their numbers coming forward, going forth,
to contest the High Elven nation’s claim in the North.
Perhaps it was for the sake of power, or for gold,
that the Dwarves, then, decided to be bold,
or due to eternal grudges that never go away,
for these two long-lived nations set out to, each other, mutually slay.

But in shining raiment, and majestic power,
the High Elves still maintained their longest hour,
until, from the East, came Chaos, came the Orcish Horde, to ravage
and scour.

In massive numbers, the Green-Skins invaded both races first,
but the Elven nation was attacked the worst.
Long-lived and once sedate the Elves had perhaps been too used to peace,
with the Dwarven presence just skirmishes at least,
but spread too thin they didn’t hope to stand the Hordes that never ceased.

Many died, and others hid,
while still more Elves to their Empire farewell they bid,
as they left to form other nations, other cities
into eventual decline they slid.

But that is not what Aelith did.

Tall, and lean, and slender,
stone could not, in good conscience, render
the high cheekbones of her face, the haughtiness of her mien,
her keen slivered eyes that many a battle, more than others of her kind,
had seen.
Her red-gold tresses shone with a beauty that was hard,
overshadowing a gaze that never, once, let down its guard.

Perhaps, once, Aelith had a family, a lover, or a spouse,
but what is known is that towards the end of her nation,
she had been married only to the War God’s House.
Aelith, Temple Warden, had guarded the Warrior Shrine
for centuries, and years,
so when the Orcish invasion came, she was not overcome by fears.

It may be that she warned her people of this day,
that their indolent lives, their complacency would not eternal stay.
But if so, very few in Aelith’s words believed,
and because of this, perhaps, their doom they did receive.

Yet, that fateful day, that fateful time, it was lives that Aelith sought to retrieve.
She and her soldiers, the War God’s children, many orc lives would reave.

With slender fingers calloused by ancient wars, and hands that grappled with her God’s demands,
Aelith, keen-eyed of ken, took her bow of moon-silver, and shot down many a marauder again,
and again.
It’s said that when she killed, her voice sang out, perfect and metallic, silvery with prayer,
as she dedicated the lives of her people’s killers to her God, as their slayer.

But deep down, perhaps Aelith sometimes wondered,
was this wrath inside her, this glory for battle, grief for her people,
or what the War God thundered?
Was it, then, that something in her, a deep surety, a steadfast belief had
gone and, and truly sundered?
For with the others, the Gods of Peace and Pax had fled,
leaving behind only Bloodlust, and inevitable Dread.
And, perhaps, something else in their stead.

Perhaps, something deeper than sentiment, and eternal myth,
had always burned in the breast of Aelith.

Aelith, whatever else, had bought her people time,
but this is not where ends the tale of this warrior archer, farsighted,
in her prime.
It would be easy, to say, that she did indeed — with her warriors — earn
a noble death,
amassing orcish skulls right down to her final breath.

Outsiders continued to terrorize her home, and ruin her lands,
and she still yet fought on, in vain, as her soldiers — too few now —
died under the invaders’ — these defilers’ — hands.

Perhaps, as these final defenders, these Elven warriors made hunters
of thinking beasts,
which blood and viscera became their only feasts,
began to starve and fall without food or game,
the fire within Aelith’s soul fed another kind of flame.
Hungry as they fought, she and her soldiers became
far past the point of any reason for it to tame
Until, driven to very few, to the corners of their Shrine at last,
a desperate spell, an evil curse, they decided upon themselves to cast.

They turned the pool beneath the Shrine, into an abattoir, the heart of a blood-smith,
for their leader to forge, there, the Doom of Aelith.
Perhaps it was their own lives that they sacrificed, through blood-stained orgies,
and profane rites,
though orcish prisoners, long-broken, would have also sufficed.

And, with this, as she tried to control their fate,
all they had left — Aelith and her soldiers — was the power of hate.

Thus with a terrible ken, that made her song more discordant, more keening,
Aelith sought — in her Shrine — to keep on dreaming
for Death their lives never to sever,
as they would defend their Temple, their Home, and fight the Enemy, in eternal war …
Forever.

And when Aelith finally died, and her blood — with others — ran like a crimson river,
it is said that her God — her spouse — by request or curse, bound her soul into her constant companion,
her moon-silver quiver.

It is said, even now, that Aelith still exists,
she and her soldiers now spectres, ghosts, and angry dead whose war continues to persist.
And, if once a year, in the Season of the Dead, lost roads in dirt and thinned veils form anew,
and outsiders find their way to the site of the Temple, of the foundations they would flee
if they only knew,
then the spirits will lure them, as they had their age-old prey,
and take them, to feed their restless bones, where they now lay.

And Aelith, a far cry from her glory,
ancient, and hideous, and far from sorry,
now a withered, and unbearable sight,
will take advantage of the outsider’s plight:
even, and especially if they too possess an Elven light.
Perhaps, long after her kin ignored what she had foretold,
for them and all, her heart had long since grown cold.

Her hunger, now, is that for souls,
as she can, and cause, for others what Death ultimately tolls.
All so she can feed herself, and almost look again alive,
to be young in corpse-light, and terrible for her ageless war
to inevitably survive.
Armed with spectral arrows, from her constant bow, that rot the body,
and assault the mind
this, and her violence, is all of her that is left behind.

For her war song now is the Song of the Banshee, the House of the Dead,
a charnel battle where all should fear to tread.

Who, now, would go so far to guard their home, their way of life, in her stead?
Or keep their lust for vengeance, for violence, perpetually fed?
Or who would dare live the life that she had led?

Who else can’t see that a Banshee’s Song
is only a war that has gone — or will happen before — far too long?

The Elven roads are gone now, beautiful manses and temples long since buried,
treasures plundered, and millennia quarried
over bones, that could have been ageless — but died young, and unmarried?
Even so, in the shadow of the White Pines, in the pall of the Fall, there are few terrestrial, even fewer viridian sith,
that will outlast the keen keening lust and hunger of the Temple Warden, the Warrior,
the Banshee Archer.
Aelith.

(c) Matthew Kirshenblatt, 2018.

Hymn to Nautilae

Written and performed by my bard during our D&D Fifth Edition Session. 

If you listen to the chiming laugh of a brook in the wood, 
and follow where the Moon-drake winds,
you will find a cavern, and an ancient bridge, 
with a rock visited by many kinds.

Elves and Minotaurs, Satyrs and Beastmen, 
and all manner of other fey,
they’ve come, like you, to the shimmering disc above, 
where her calm waters hold sway. 

There, she comes to you, smooth and cool,
from an offering dropped into her pool.
Silver given to a silvery sheen,
the Faerie comes with intention keen,
her magic strong enough to let her glean
your wishes that are yet to be seen. 

She’s like a Nereid, a Nymph, a watery Queen,
the finest that you’ve ever seen. 
Beautiful lady, ending with a tail,
to this vision, this humble bard sings this modest hail.

Her silken hair from her head crests out in waves,
like the glimmering veins of the world hidden in secret caves.
Rocks crumble, fires die, and winds move on,
but water, Terra-life’s blood moving, is never gone.

If you are wise, and your manners are fine,
with silver presented she may grant you a blessing undine. 
For with her touch, an axe might shine,
a staff made clear of evil’s brine, 
a hallowed bow’s soul no longer confined, 
each item freed from age or taint or temporal decline.

Yet above all, if you believe only one word of mine,
the Faerie holds the guidance of the watery line.
She offers a map under temples long grass,
sunken cities that mortals can no longer pass, 
traveling down roots where no stories tell,
or to a place of lost souls through an ancient well
where hope, thought long gone, may still yet dwell. 

Such are the mysteries you might find, where rock and waters play,
if you pay homage to the underlake of night and day,
for silver to a silvered tongue is yet the best way,
to court the favour of the Good Queen, Nautilae. 

(c) Matthew Kirshenblatt, 2019.

And What They Found There

Look down the wondrous structure,
Where the chequer’d shadows play;
See the scattered groups increasing,
Wending up the dômed way. 
— E. Leathes, Fragments From the Crystal Palace

It’s like one of Mr. Dodgson’s stories, but so much worse.

Ida Codswell continues running, hiding behind a corner with her lamp. How her light has lasted this long is beyond her understanding. The fuel should have run out a long time ago. Even the Elekiter … even the light device design that Edison and other men stole from her when she worked at the Holborn Viaduct power station wouldn’t have lasted this long, or in these conditions.

Everything is grey and cold in this place of winding stairs. Nothing is smooth, but scratched and faded like the old daguerreotypes left in a drawer after a child’s funeral. Staircases wind up, and down, and lead to nowhere. Ida knows this. Sometimes, it feels like she has walked on all of those steps.

She had ripped away her small, grey petticoats a while ago while fleeing the shadows, and trying to keep up with the mirror people. Dr. Pocket’s rambling about them remains in her head sometimes. There are even times she thinks she can almost see him, drawn and pale and tired … and scared. Just like her.

She has seen a lot of them. Many of them stick to her, following her down the jagged paths, and sharp edges leading nowhere and to all the different levels of this place that decidedly hasn’t been the British Museum for quite sometime. It’s like becoming lost in some mad landscaper’s dream, or eternally navigating through a non-Euclidean nightmare.

Ida feels the exhaustion in her very being, but she realizes that she hasn’t been hungry or thirsty in quite some time. In fact, come to think of it, when she remembers she hasn’t had any bodily functions here, not even the need for sleep. This is not the case for the shadows, whose backwards faces she sometimes sees in the light of her lamp. It drives them away, shrieking back into the dark corners of this purgatory. She doesn’t know how long she will be able to hold them off.

The light in her hands that, by all rights, she shouldn’t have even had for this long before the shadows had taken her deep into this place, was a deterrent to them … consuming her, but just as it repelled them, it also let them know where she was. It is only a matter of time before they manage to surround her on all sides, and take her away from her lamp.

Even so, there are other people sometimes. Not just Dr. Pocket, if it is indeed him, but the Mr. Waylon the coat check gentleman. And others in different period clothing. Sometimes, she even thinks she sees animals like … Kevin, the rat with the cat ears at her side. Ida vaguely recalls the story of Diogenes shining a lamp in broad daylight, making a statement about attempting to find an honest man. Ida doesn’t know about that, but her light keeps her safe.

It is fitting, she thinks to herself as she turns another corner with some other people of the mirror, she had spent so much of her life wanting to be noticed because of her work with electricity, having her ideas stolen from her, that when she is the only one she can see with true light in a place of darkness she wants to do nothing else but hide, or flee from the situation entire.

Nevertheless, Ida clenches her jaw. She doesn’t know where she is, or what she is now, but whatever else she has become, she is the light-bringer here. If she can provide a temporary shield for her and fellows against the shadows, she would gladly do it: to embrace this cross to bear that was never sought nor earned. And this place, even with its crawling darkness, will have to do a lot more to her if it planned to extinguish her hard held radiance.

For however long it lasts.

*

Dr. Mason Pocket wanders the labyrinth.

He recalls the etymology of the word, in his drifting mind.  The labrys: the double-bitted ax found on the island where the city-state of Crete resided. According to various studies, the Minoan civilization performed many sacrifices there to their gods. And, of course, there is the monster of myth, the Minotaur, that roamed a maze of that named created by the greatest of ancient Achaean inventors Daedalus.

But Daedalus did not avail Mason’s assorted group, nor his sense of reason and order in this situation. Invention only staved off the occultic tide for so long before human folly fell to its primordial weight of inevitability. In retrospect, he should have listened to Ms. O’Neil on that account. If anything, he can relate to the labrys most of all now: given that he had shattered the mirror that contained one of his companions.

He had been so sure it would free Ms. Codswell, as she had been pointing at him, trying to speak mutely from the dark surface.

Sometimes, he thinks he sees her here in the winding corridors.

Mason still knows there is a difference between the shadow people, and the mirror people. The shadow people are turned around wrong. Their faces are warped and twisted. If they were human, they stopped being so long ago.

The mirror people had definitely been human. But they drift around, out of colour, out of space, lost … Just like him.

Neither shadows nor reflections trouble Mason anymore. He has come to, essentially, accept them all. There is a balance in this. There are no shades of red, green, or black to trouble the former archivist anymore. He feels like a shade in some ancient Sumerian afterlife, his breathing a rustling of leaves, his respite cold muck, his essence empty, his sense of purpose drifting away …

It should frighten him, but he wonders if this is what it is like to be one of his beloved antiquities, his relics, sitting on their shelves all catalogued and organized. He helped destroy a precious black mirror, an ancient artifact after all, wrapped in symbols of … Aklo? Perhaps, in retrospect again, the American Enoch Bowen might have had a better notion from his own Egyptian archaeological find over five decades before, a thing left in darkness rather being contained in radiance. In the end, perhaps this place is the dream of a museum within an undying mind, where the struggles between good and evil, day and night, and light and dark do no matter anymore in these shades of grey.

For all he had given out his pamphlets to reveal the knowledge of the ancients to the world at large, like the tomb of the dread Nephren-Ka perhaps in the end it should have all belonged to a museum — as did he — all of them consigned into boxes, and mercifully forgotten.

*

There was a crooked man, he whispers to himself, and he went a crooked mile.

Archie Orlick staggers down the stairs, his arms outstretched in front of him, searching, reaching, trying to keep the balance. Trying to keep going.

He found a crooked sixpence, he croaks in an Irish brogue, against a crooked stile.

Archie had lived most of his life, looking over his own shoulder. As Septimus Goodfellow, the celebrity spiritualist whose finery he wears even now with his cloak and clasp and chain around a neck that by all rights and purposes should have been severed cleanly on a museum floor, he owed the Order of the Golden Dawn a lot of money.

The blighter Merriweather had what he wanted. He has even more of what he wants now.

He bought a crooked cat, he sings, softly, which caught a crooked mouse.

Bathsheba. He doesn’t think about her much. David’s wife. The woman a king killed a man for with dishonesty. A cat entered for similar reasons. It wouldn’t be the first time Archie got into trouble over pussy. Over dishonesty.

An actor’s bread. Mathers. Machen. His countryman Yeats. Crowley. Fakes and actors — pretentious wankers — the lot of them. As if they were any different than he. When Archie set out on his path through spiritualist circles, taking on the fop mask of Goodfellow, he claimed to channel the spirits of the dead and see their secrets for what they are. A channeler. A goddamned medium. It seems so far away now. So much clearer.

Blatavsky, another fraud. She talked about people who remembered the future, and walked towards the past. Like he is walking now. Just like now. How dare they judge him? These fucks. They don’t know. They know what it’s like living from one coin to another and not know if they were going to get their bread that day, and there are so many ignorant suckers, so many around him …

And … Archie murmurs, sing-sing, they all liv’d together in a little crooked house. 

Nah. Archie lived his whole life looking over his shoulder. Now, all he can do is look back.

Lemurians. Yes. That’s what Blatavsky called them. People with one eye at the back of their heads.

And now, all Archie can do is keep walking forward, his hands reaching, traveling down towards the different planes of this world, through its corners, and its facets, not knowing when his next opportunity, his next fellow traveler, his next mark, his next meal-ticket will come.

And Archie, who once called himself Septimus Goodfellow, his pale twisted mouth opening wide is very, very hungry.

A Midsummer Night’s Dance

They sit in the white room together.

He looks around at the walls. He’s a bit awestruck. Dark runes and symbols seem both fixed, and moving on the ivory plaster. Sometimes they are Nordic sigils, or astrological signs. Other times they are words in Aramaic, Latin, or Enochian. But the details of these pictures and phrases don’t particularly concern the two people in the room. They are just background noise, shadows, an architecture of everything leading up to this point in their conversation.

The two of them are sitting in chairs across from each other. She is dressed all in white, her shoulders leaning forward as though to listen to him more intently, her face open and receptive. He fidgets as he sits, looking back and forth at everything else in the chamber: in this place that is a lodge, or a temple, or an office. They are as different as night and day: he is dark-haired and his skin is sallow, his eyes brown, while she is smaller, her hair a pale blonde, her skin extremely fair, and her eyes are a bright green.

He smiles, tentatively. “Damn.” He says. “If only my Mom could see this place. No, wait …” He shakes his head, his brow furrowing. “No. Charlie … she would love it. It reminds me of something she would draw.”

“I know. The first time I saw this place, I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t conceive of anything like it ever existing.” She crosses one leg over the other. “Charlie … she is an artist?”

“Yeah.” He looks down for a few moments. “She was my sister.”

“I see.” She says. “And you are?”

“Oh.” He looks at at her. “I’m Peter. Peter Graham.”

“Hello Peter.” Her smile is gentle. “I’m Dani Ardor. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Yeah. Likewise.” He continues to look around the room, still alert, as though hoping to avoid talking about a specific subject.

“Was she your younger sister? Older?”

“Younger.” Peter keeps examining the room, his eyes squinting.

“I had a young sister too.” Dani replies. “Her name was Terri.”

Peter’s attention comes back to Dani. His face changes, as though really seeing her for the first time. “What happened to her?”

“She died.” Dani says, her green eyes sad, faraway.

“Yeah.” Peter murmurs. “Mine too.”

Dani looks at him, her eyes intent. “I lost my entire family.”

Peter closes his eyes for a few moments. He takes his thumb and forefinger and rubs the crooked bridge of his nose. It had been broken at some point in time. “Me too.”

They sit there like that, for minutes, hours, centuries, aeons … “It was a peanut allergy.” Peter begins. “Charlie had … other issues. She went to her own classes. You know, SpEd.”

“Special Education.” Dani nods.

For a few moments, the visage of a small girl appears in place of Peter’s face: a crooked nose, small drooping lips, eyes off on an angle, hair brown with the consistency of straw. There is a hesitancy in those eyes, an awkwardness. And just as quickly, the image is gone and Peter is looking down at his hands again.

“Yeah.” He says. “Like I said, she had a peanut allergy. My mom made me take her to a party. For school. She ate something she shouldn’t have. In the chocolate there. I wasn’t thinking. I drove her back … to the hospital, or home, or …” He shakes his head. “She didn’t make it.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Peter.” Dani says, and her tone is sincere, and warm. “Terri had bipolar disorder. A severe case. I was always worried about her. She’d had a few episodes, but I always tried to remain in contact with her. I even studied at college to help her.”

“My dad.” Peter says, meeting her eyes again. “My dad was a psychiatrist. He must have helped people like your sister all the time.”

“Well, I wasn’t enrolling for psychiatry, Peter.” Dani corrects him, gently. “I was studying clinical psychology. But your dad, he sounds like he was a good man.”

“He tried.” Peter’s left hand clacks against the armrest of his chair.

“So did my parents.” Dani admits. “It was winter. Terri took some exhaust pipes. She breathed in carbon monoxide, and took her own life.”

Peter’s eyes widen. “Well.” He says. “That’s … that’s fucked.”

“Yeah.” Dani chuckles, mirthlessly. “It was.”

“I’m sorry for your loss …” Peter sighs. “That’s what they kept saying at my Grandma’s funeral. And then Charlie’s … It really doesn’t do much, does it? There’s not really much to say.”

“There really wasn’t anything to say, then.” Dani replies. “Mostly, I just cried.”

“So did my Mom.”

“I cried a lot. In my bed. In bathrooms.” Dani says. “I cried wherever no one could see me.”

“My Mom cried at the funeral. And my Dad … if he did, he did it in private. Me …” Peter gestures down at himself. “I just hid. I hid … until I couldn’t anymore.”

“It’s strange, isn’t it? Everyone processes grief differently. At first, I tried to be honest about it. My therapist told me to open up, to express how I felt to my loved ones. To my friends. But they already thought I was crazy. Even my boyfriend at the time. So I choked it down. I made myself numb. I tried not to feel it anymore. And, well.” She shrugs. “I just cried privately instead. No one to comfort me. No one to empathize. No one to hold me.”

Peter nods. “We never were the huggy sort of family. It was all on and off. My Dad, like I said, he tried. He really did. As for my Mom …” He sits up straighter. “When did it happen?”

“I was twenty-three.”

“I was sixteen.” Peter says. “Still in high school. There was this girl I liked. That’s all I really thought about, back then. Girls and cars. And pot.” Suddenly, he looks away from Dani again, as though self-conscious, and remembering who he was talking to.

“Just like any normal sixteen year old boy.” Dani offers, a small smile quirking at her lips. It isn’t a mocking one, but knowing and full of understanding.

“That’s it. I wanted to be normal. You know?” Peter’s left hand twitches again. “Dad was a psychiatrist. My sister was Special Olympics. Even Grandma had issues. And Mom …” He shakes his head. “My Grandpa had psychotic depression. My uncle was a schizo. They both offed themselves before I was born. I was the only normal one. That’s what I kept telling myself. I just wanted to be out of there. Out of that house …” His dark eyes glance around again, left and right. “But we’re in a house right now.”

“We all are.” Dani says, her eyes also looking around the chamber. “We are all a house. And walls. And floors. And a basement.”

“And an attic?” Peter smirks, then shakes his head, as though trying to reorient himself.

Dani laughs. “Well, I’m not sure Jung thought about attics in dream houses.”

“If a house’s a person, and if they don’t have an attic, wouldn’t they be headless?”

There is a lull in their conversation, as both seem lost in their own thoughts.

Peter runs his left hand through his hair. “I feel like I’m high or something …”

“I told you,” Dani says, “I was a psychology student, not a psychiatrist.”

It takes a moment, before the smirk forms on her lips. Peter blinks, and then laughs. He laughs hard. He stretches out his left hand, turning it on an angle for a few moments, before returning it back to his side on the armrest. “Fair enough. My friends and me used to self-medicate with pot.”

“My ex and his friends took me to this commune,” Dani says, “got me on these pills, and later drinks. It turns out it was psilocybin.”

“Shrooms.” Peter grins, and nods. “Nice.”

“I … well.” Dani shakes her head, and for a few moments a garland of leaves and flowers seems to appear there before they are gone. “After what happened to me, and what was happening to me with my relationship, my … trips weren’t the best.”

“Damn. I can only imagine.” Peter replies. “We used to smoke up. It eased up all the tension. My parents always wanted me to excel, you know? Especially my Dad. He wanted me to make something of myself. I guess … he just didn’t want me to be crazy like the rest of the family. But I just wanted to be normal, you know. I wanted to show everyone I was normal.”

“Just because you come from a family with mental illness and non-neurotypical behaviour doesn’t mean you have either.” Dani says, not unkindly. “And even if you do, there is nothing wrong with you. That is all social stigma, Peter. It is all right to be different.”

“It was weird.” Peter leans back in his shoulder, less in relaxation and more to almost brace himself. “I think that’s also what Dad wanted. I mean, he was a doctor. Grandma wove things. Mom made dioramas for a living. And Charlie. Charlie sometimes made stuff like that, but she drew. She drew all the time. Even at Grandma’s funeral. I just … didn’t do any of that. I didn’t want to. I was just … normal. I wasn’t anything special.”

“That isn’t true, Peter.” Dani says, reaching over to squeeze his knee. Then, she removes her hand, but still leans forward to focus on him. “Really, I think you just needed a place to express your feelings, to be yourself, to talk about all that pain, and find others to understand you. To be with your own kind of people.”

“Now you sound like my Dad, no offense.” Peter moves his hand, as though waving her off.

“I’m not trying to psychoanalyze you, Peter.” Dani says. “I’m just saying that I can relate.”

“I really … I wanted to find friends.” He reaches into his front shirt pocket, but pauses, realizing that whatever he’s looking for isn’t there anymore. “I smoked up, and that usually took the edge off. But then I had a bad trip, too. I was … choking. I was choking just like …”

“The grief feels heavy.” Dani says after Peter trails off. “Like a stone on your chest that you can never throw off of yourself on your own.”

Peter sighs, rubbing his face. “Were they there for you? Your parents? When your sister …”

This time, it’s Dani who looks down as Peter’s dark eyes seem to pierce into her. “Terri, she took the exhaust pipes of my parents’ cars. She ran them into her bedroom, and my parents’ room.” She closes her eyes, and breathes in and out, before continuing. “She killed herself, and my entire family.”

“I’m …” Peter looks like he is trying to find the words. “I’m so sorry …”

Dani shakes her head. “I was devastated. My ex, for all his flaws, he tried his best to be there for me. I see that now. But I worked through it. And the reason I was able to get through that was because of the commune we visited. They … they took me in. They made me realize I didn’t have to hide my grief, or pain. That they weren’t shameful things. They were there for me. They even celebrated my birthday. I mean, it wasn’t exactly my birthday but they had a celebration around the same time. It took a long time, and a lot of work. But I felt … one day I just felt this release when all that pressure was finally gone, and out of me. I felt so unburdened, you know? I felt free.”

“I killed my sister.”

Peter is staring at Dani. There are circles under his eyes. But he isn’t so much looking into Dani’s eyes so much as looking past her. Looking through her.

“We weren’t supposed to be at that party.” He says. “My Mom knew. I know she knew. She deliberately had me take her. It wasn’t a school party. I really wanted to look cool for that girl. But Charlie, she got something to eat, and it had peanuts. Like I said, I panicked. And then … I … she …” He shakes his head. “She opened the window. She couldn’t breathe. Charlie was hanging her head out. I was driving fast. There was a post and …”

His teeth clench. Dani doesn’t say anything. She sits and waits for him to continue. Listening.

“I felt almost like it happened to someone else, you know? I didn’t feel anything. Not really. I was the screw-up again, you know? I just didn’t know what I was doing. My Mom, she … broke. We tried to go back to normal. At least, Dad and I did. Mom and Dad weren’t sleeping in the same bed after a while. I could tell. You know, my Dad didn’t get it. He really didn’t. He … he tried.” Peter repeats. “I know he tried with Mom too. She really loved him, you know? I know he sure as hell loved her. She … went crazy.”

A tear flows down one of Peter’s eyes, but he doesn’t wipe it away. “Dad tried to hold everything together, but he had no chance. He had no idea what was going on. You know, it’s funny, Dani.” He says, a wry, bitter smile coming on his face. “People keep saying he wasn’t that important, aside from everything he sacrificed for me to live. But I miss him. Even now, a part of me still misses him.” He shakes his head. “But he had to die. And so did my Mom. She loved me too. She tried to kill me when I was with Charlie … when we were in the same nursery. Doused with kerosene. She was going to light that match. My Mom sleepwalked. But you know the most fucked up thing, Dani?”

“What is it Peter?” There is no judgment in her tone, or any expression. Just the question.

Peter laughs, a bitter, tear-strangled chortle. “There is still a part of me now, even after all this time, after everything I’ve found and regained, that wishes she actually went through with it.” His eyes are dark, large, and haunted. “Isn’t that just fucked?”

“For the longest time, even in the commune,” Dani says, “I kept seeing my parents’ bodies. My sister’s face. I saw the exhaust pipes. I saw them on my couch at my old apartment. I wanted to be with them too, Peter. Ideation is not an unnatural part of loss, but it’s something that you need help for, and it is not a bad or shameful thing to ask for help.”

“I …” Peter starts, his shoulders shaking, as he looks away from her. “I’m so tired, Dani. I just want this to be over. I just want it to finally be over.”

Dani stands up as Peter hunches over, crying quietly. The air ripples around them. There is grass, growing from the floor, through their feet, and their hands. “Peter.” She says, finally. “Peter. I want to tell you something. It’s something that my husband told me the first time I came to his family commune. May I come over?”

Peter nods, shadows overtaking his face. Dani walks over and kneels in front of him. “Can I take your hands?”

“I … I’m scared.” Peter says. “I’m scared and I’m tired.”

“I know.” Dani says. “I am sorry I didn’t ask earlier, when I touched your knee. But I’m asking now.”

There is a pause, but Peter nods. Dani takes her hands and places them over his. His turn, and actually hold hers tightly. The room is rippling now. It is becoming darker. There are other decorations. Windows. It is night time, but trees can be seen. And candles light the room with a gentle radiance.

Dani looks up into Peter’s face. “A long time ago now,” she says, “my husband asked me if I felt, or remembered what it was like to feel at home. To safe. To feel held. He was one of my ex’s friends, and he was the one that got me here. To the commune. He asked me if I felt held by my ex.” She smiles faintly, with old self-derision. “I didn’t. But when I met my husband’s family, I saw my missing pieces. I saw my actions were not part of where I came from. They weren’t something that happened, or accepted in America, but they were natural here. They were right. And after a while, after cooking with my new sisters, after dancing with them, and eating dinner, and having them comfort me in my grief — seeing me — feeling me, I felt like I belonged. I felt like I was held.”

She takes one hand, and places it under Peter’s chin. “Do you want to be held, Peter?”

Peter nods silently as he holds his arms around her waist. He buries his face in her chest, sobbing quietly. Dani folds her arms around him. She rubs long, concentric circles over his hunched back. For a few moments, there is daylight through the new windows of the room, and its timber walls.

“Thank you, Dani.” Peter says, after a time. This … this feels so nice.”

Dani smiles. “In time, it will get better. You will never forget where you are, or what you did. But eventually, you will accept it.”

“Charlie …” Peter repeats “… Charlie would have loved this place.”

“I can imagine.” Dani murmurs, stroking his hair. “Our oracle, Ruben, he has many challenges as well. We don’t know how long he will be with us, but every moment we have with him is special. And he loves to draw. I think he and Charlie would have gotten along well if they met.”

“Well, I can’t wait to meet him.” Peter says, raising his face from Dani’s arms. “Or the rest of your family, Dani Ardor.”

Then, the sunlight is gone. The stars have returned through the windows. The candles are prevalent again, shining, piercing, orange and red through the darkness. He looks up at her again. There is a crown, a silver paper crown on his head. Above him, among a few words of Latin and Aramaic is a symbol of three figures sealed in a circle and a semi-circle around them with three tiny shapes that look like heads. The grass around them, and inside their hands and feet become swarms of black-bodied insects.

Peter’s eyes are dark, deeper than the abyss, as they look right into Dani. “I win this dance, May Queen.” The voice rumbles, his lips splitting into a twisted rictus of a grin. “Now, give us a kiss.” 

Dani, transfixed by the transformation leans down. Two headless bodies, one blackened and one stained in red, form beside him. For a few moments, the black, empty eyes and grey face of Terri Ardor consumes her own. As her ashen lips lower to his face, she whispers. “You only had to ask, King Paimon.”

Then, Dani breathes in and out and releases a mist into his face. The room around them ripples. The tree house grows moss, and leaves, and branches. The roof crumbles, revealing the summer sky and the rising dawn. Dani isn’t wearing white anymore as the flowers and leaves cover her body, forming into a garland, into a hood of greenery and viridian. The insects are consumed by the grass, by the hum of a multitude of voices around them, by the sun, and clouds, and many shapes surrounding them, holding this place, being held.

The being wearing Peter’s face clucks his tongue. He clacks it again. He raises his left arm into the air, twisting his wrist as though to summon something. He looks around, as the space begins to folds into itself again, losing their windows. The timber isn’t white or brown anymore. It’s a deep, darker yellow. The angles in the room are more narrow, and sharper. Where there were candles, there are now torches. There is straw on the ground. Dark eyes glow, but Dani continues to hold him in place.

And then, he doesn’t blink anymore. He isn’t moving. His arm wavers as Dani takes one hand, taking his hand, and lowering it gently back to his side. Then, she takes hold of him, everyone takes hold of him, and places him back in the chair.

The conversation is over.

*

The May Queen gazes upon King Paimon’s vessel with pity.

It had been a close thing. The white-clad bodies of Hårga and Häxan alike surround the body, placed within the innards of the bear. The powers the coven brought to bear on the community were horrific, but they had prevailed. It is no Midsommar ritual. Paimon sought to break the balance, attacking in the night, from the shadows, from the corners of the dark. But they found no willing vessels here, no other dancers.

Only the commune. Only the May Queen.

The paralytic, the same that had taken Christian Hughes, the last true rotting connection she had to the outside world and made him a tribute, took affect on the Dark One through his vessel. He either hadn’t gathered enough power in this world, or land to resist it, or he had become too overconfident as they danced with each other, in the night, around the bonfire and the maypole, and failed to make her soul his own, her body and mind his puppet.

Paimon’s dark eyes glare at her out of his new bear costume of fur and gristle, his stolen face filled with hatred and malice. And fear.

The elders and the other Hårga leave the temple, with torches in hand. It isn’t the Midsommar rite, but it is time for another holiday, another celebration over imbalance, over the unnatural, and the joy and revelry of birth, and life, and pain, and death and the entirety of the cycle.

Slowly, the May Queen is put aside for the moment as Dani Ardor looks down at Peter Graham’s body. For a few moments, he reminds her of Christian. But his hair is dark where Christian’s was red. His face is still unshaven, a boy’s face, where Christian had a beard. And Christian been a man, making his own choices, where Peter had just been a boy, still immature, so afraid, so lonely, with no choice at all. Dani kneels down, next to him, and speaks, whispering softly in his ear.

“I’m sorry, Peter.” She murmurs. “I know you aren’t there anymore. That you’ve been gone for a long time. I couldn’t avenge my family against the demons that took them. The least I can do is bring justice to the demon that took yours.”

Dani — the May Queen of the Hårga — brushes her lips against Peter’s forehead, leaving her kiss there, her blessing. Then, she turns, walking out of the temple, but not before taking a torch and lowering it into the straw, leaving it — and Paimon — to blaze behind her.

Rite of Spring

It had been centuries since Charlie had come to this land.

No. That isn’t entirely accurate. Charlie himself had actually never been to this mountaintop before. Not tonight, not hundreds of years ago.

He hadn’t even been born yet: not for a while. Charlie hangs there, suspended in the cold Northern air, above the mountain peaks and the clearing below with its quaint little cottages: all of them bright, and decorated, and beautiful. They resembled nothing more, and nothing less, than the dioramas, than a miniature village that his mother in this lifetime — his poor, beloved Annie — would have created. Yet even that isn’t quite right. He turns away from the floating form of his mother at his side, floating with him, appreciating her quaint sentiment far more than he ever did as either child — still a beautiful ivory sculpture stained with crimson, Apollonian and Dionysian both as the ancients in another place and time would have appreciated — and turned to his grandmother, his summoner, his greatest servant in this age.

Ellen’s skin has long since turned black with time. Even still, she levitates at his other side brimming with the power she had earned. For ages, Charlie had laboured to return. He failed to come back many times. It cost Ellen her husband, and then her son. He knows what she gave up. He knows what she sacrificed for his sake. She failed to birth him into the world directly, but she had found a workaround. Ellen and her followers, and eventually his own mother created a perfect body, and a temporary vessel to hold him. It’d been more than anyone had done in the forever that existed before he was born, and in the brief times he had been here before. No, if anything, for all Ellen’s love of weaving she knew was she was, what the coven that she led ultimately is. No. Charlie is inclined to agree with her assessment.

The commune below them, around them, isn’t so much a witch’s house as it is a village of gingerbread.

The coven floats around him. Some are his former teachers. Others acquaintances at his grandmother’s funeral, whom when he fully awakened understands that he has known intimately. All of them had planned his return well. Some are in the air with him, filled with his strength that they’ve earned, such as his grandmother through skill and surrogacy, and his mother through virtue of being the vessel and gate of his rebirth. Others appear below in the corners of the clearing, near the trees, though not the trees deeper in the woods near the village. Most are naked, save a few like his mothers.

One of his greatest followers, after Ellen, Joan whispers in his ear: asking for guidance, requesting his commands. He nods towards Ellen. A dark, rotted hand points down at the village. Joan bows her head, plump and deferential, as she disappears to take her place again.

The coven member behind him takes up his banner, the girl’s face he wore before he realized himself. He honours it as much as he does his two mothers, having erased this body’s presence from the Book of Life, destroying that dead name, and replacing it with his own. It had been chosen by Ellen. But Charlie knows he has another name. He has always known.

Still, it doesn’t mean much. He has had many names through his existence: in this world and others. But all of them are sacred, and he will not let any of them be disrespected. Not like they were when he was here, centuries ago, passing through this land.

When he was last here, at the Hårga.

*

The bonfires are lit for the event that is about to take place.

Dani understands that it isn’t Midsommar, not the true celebration and ritual that happens every ninety years. They sit in the temple, looking over the tome that the oracle has finally finished painting. Father Ulf, Stev, Odd, and Siv along with the other elders flip to an earlier page in the book first, letting Dani see pages of runes, and drawings.

Ruben watches from his cot in the corner, his blue eyes seemingly lost, but his purposeful fingers still stained with the paint of his exertions. Once, Dani would have pitied the boy, faraway eyes lost in a sagging face with bulging lips, mute since she had known him. But under the influence of the psilocybin she can see the air radiate around him.

Pelle puts a hand on her shoulder. His hair is wreathed with leaves and flowers, a smaller counterpart to the dress that she once wore at the beginning of her new life in the Hårga. She knows the people here now, knows that this is more than just a place or a people: that the latter have taken up the rhythms, and cycles of the former. She had just been the lodge this day, with its astrological symbols on ivory walls, talking to Siv: talking with her about Pelle and the future that they would have, before being awoken with Pelle tonight, to come to the temple.

To see the pictures.

Even Dani can see that they are different. They aren’t the neat vertical lines of runes from previous generations. They aren’t even the lush blurs and colours of Ruben’s usual drawings. They are black and white, rough sketching, and very specific.

There is a boy. Or at least it is the caricature of one. He seems to be standing in a cabin, or a tree house. Behind him, is a head on a stick with xs where its eyes should be. There is a crown on it. In front of him are two bowing figures: one black, and the other white. There are eight other figures, men and women, also on their knees in front of the boy. She squints at it again. Dani imagines, if the cycles hadn’t brought her here, if she hadn’t realized that the patterns of emptiness inside of her that existed even before she lost everything, she might have become a clinical psychologist and believed these to be the drawings of a disturbed. It was ironic, given what her sister had gone through, but perhaps in another life she could have helped such children before they hurt themselves, and others.

She knows better now. It is as though someone else drew this. Another child. Another being.

The elders point to the crown, and they murmur. The workers and the rest of the commune have already made preparations. This particular image had been made about a year ago, a prediction of some night darkness. Of something coming.

Pelle rubs soothing circles on the small of her back as the elders return to the recent image, flipping the pages back to Ruben’s last work. It is more akin to what he usually creates, but at the same time there is an amalgamation of different styles that are unmistakable. Two headless women, one black, and one red. There are seven others, in the smudged green that is grass, and in the blotted blue-purple of the air. Darkness comes briefly here, to the Hårga, but it is noticeable. But it is the central figure. The boy. He is among them, up front and center. His eyes are black. The crown doesn’t adorn the twisted face of the head borne on a pole behind him, but it is silver, and around his head.

The elders speak a few names. A few words. There is a rhythm to it. A practice. Everything is practice and ritual in the commune. This is no different. The figures in the drawing surround a village. Their community.

It almost seems that the flying figures, and the forms on the margins of their commune are moving. Almost … dancing

Dani hears one word in particular. Häxan. Witches.

The elders turn to her, almost as one. Hanna and Maja, and the other girls enter. She turns to regard Pelle, who smiles at her encouragingly, then he lets her go. Dani follows them outside. She looks up and sees the figures suspended in the air, the bonfires around the maypole outlining them in red and oranges.

And as the girls lead her to the maypole, that is when Dani begins to understand what they need from her.

*

Charlie watches the people assemble below, in their radiant white tunics and breeches, adjorned in blue and red patterns, like the figurines he used to see his mother create: that he himself used to take apart, and put together into new forms.

He sees them assemble like a colony of ants. They link arms together, facing him, confronting his followers, and the powerful familiars that he has given them. But they are not the true spirits he had promised them. No. His more powerful legions will require the purest hosts, the most open and receptive.

These people. These … insects.

Fair-haired, pallid men and women, elders and children, he remembers when he came down and made them dance. He made them all dance. There is power in ritual, and for a time when he was here last, he had them all. But then, one day …

She came.

He knows it isn’t her as the girls follow her. It isn’t possible. Even if they were able to live for centuries, they would never let themselves exist longer than seventy-two summers. That was part of the pact they made with the land, to make themselves strong and beautiful, and productive right towards the end. No matter what he offered them, they refused.

Her hair is pale-gold. Her skin is white. They strip her and he sees why they are in their power. They cover her with the fruits and growth of the earth. Pale green eyes hold his dark ones. There is no fear in them. No anxiety. There is just inevitability.

Her eyes. They are the gaze of someone who has lost everything, and gained the world. It is, in retrospect, a pity he’d not gotten to her first, that his song hadn’t been the one to fill the emptiness inside of her.

Some part of him, some human part of him, wants to draw this. He wants to make silly caricatures of these silly, ridiculous, infuriating creatures. Perhaps it is the human in him, from one host to another. Maybe it is nostalgia for the mortal childhood he had, such as it was. But another kind of past consumes him tonight.

They humiliated him here, once. But now it is different. He has brought his sigils of power. He has the symbols of three heads lost. Night is short here, on this mountain, but he has his followers. It is frustrating that he cannot call on his other strengths. They burn their dead, placing their ashes under the trees. The very land here has resonance with their ritualistic deaths. He will enjoy profaning them, soaking them with his piss when it is all over …

Once he was done playing with their lives all over again. Once he takes this land, this font, and their ritual, and dominates the seasons of the world, just as he intended so long ago.

They have been preparing for this moment, after his return, for a year and a day. Now, it is time. He raises one hand into the air, twisting his arm at an angle, making a gesture with an inverted wrist.

Hail Paimon! His followers chant, striking and proud, converging, glorious. Hail Paimon!

*

Dani lets her sisters place the garlands in her hair. They take the dress of flowers, and adorn her in it. It rustles around her as she moves. But this time, as she goes to take her place in front of the maypole, it isn’t drugs, or fear, or grief that bows her head down, that bends her spine, that makes her waddle.

Siv and the other mothers saw her in the lodge. They determined when it was going to happen in a manner similar yet different to Ruben’s prophecies and the elders that took the time to interpret them.

Her eyes never leave the young man in the air. He might have been handsome once, in an awkward way. His nose is crooked. It looks like, at one time, he broke it. The drone of his name echoes through the air, and around them. Dani thinks about the spot in the clearing where the yellow temple had burned with the nine sacrifices required to keep the cycles of life and death flowing naturally in the Hårga.

She remembers the stories, when the psilocybin finally allowed her to understand the girls that would become her new sisters, of the dark one — the beast — that made all the villagers dance until they died. Some said he was a demon. Or a monster. Or a god. And then, one day, a girl came to face him. She took the dance, she brought it into herself, she turned it against the dark one, and she tricked him: and with the sacrifice of nine of her folk, she seduced him into a suit of animal fur so that her people could trap him, and burn him away, destroying all the evil inside of them for almost a hundred years: keeping from this place, from this world, for longer.

That girl became the first May Queen. And this place became hallowed as the Hårga.

And so it remained. Until tonight.

The Hårga seems to spread out for her, giving her space, but surrounding her at the maypole. Dani realizes that they have fallen into line behind her, holding their hands, facing their ancient foe, looking up right after she has done so.

As the substances inside her accentuate their reality here, in this land, in this place of power, this font that is also the Hårga, she sees the monster more clearly. He is larger. His face is almost feminine now. For a few moments, she thinks she can see … hooves where his legs should be, and a bag at his side. But his crown, its spokes are elongated now. They threaten to pierce the heavens. For a few moments, they look like antlers, like something the Horned King from Celtic mythology would wear.

For a split second, as he looks at her she sees a brief, poignant life of rejection, and his sheer painfulness — a sense of inherent wrongness — in him interacting, or even being in this world without hurting it. Like he never fit in. Then he looks like a scared little boy. Just like Christian at the end.

That is when she realizes what this being wants to do. He wants to take this place for himself. To despoil it. To warp and twist the natural flow of the land to serve him, and his followers. Like a parody of the Horned God, he wants to take her for himself: to succeed where he failed centuries ago, and corrupt her and her people to his will.

But as Dani looks over, to see Pelle with his own flower crown, she knows that she will only ever have one Green Man.

His name is chanted, by beings that should have died a long time ago, wielding things that ripple strangely through the air, that are black where grass should be growing out of healthy skin and blood.

And Dani clucks her tongue.

Like a mother hen, like a disappointed parent, Dani’s tongue clicks against the roof of her mouth. And, behind her the clucking is mimicked by her brothers and sisters, by her mothers and fathers, by her grandfathers and grandmothers, by her family. For a few moments, she realizes that the witches surrounding the dark one have grown silent. They are no longer chanting his name. They have shrunken back, but remain in their positions. But something has changed here, now. Something fundamental that Dani cannot name.

Perhaps, with her hands around her swollen abdomen, it is similar to that of the unnamed child inside of her.

*

Charlie’s eyes narrow into fury, black slits.

These insects dare to mock him? Again? To mimic him? For a few moments, he sees his loyal followers look up at him. Not in confidence, or a lust for glory, or recognition, or power. But fear.

It is only a small passing of time as Charlie — as Paimon — knows that they aren’t afraid of the Hårga. They do not fear these elders and their children, or the dead ashes fertilizing the ground, but rather his own displeasure. His wrath.

And it is then that Paimon grins. He will make these people dance all right. He will make them dance the dance of St. John. Of St. Vitus. And they will dance it for him beyond death itself. That will be a small price to pay for sealing him in the guts of a bear, surrounded by corpses and fire, for setting him aflame, for burning him in effigy for centuries.

As though he were responsible for the evil inside of them. As if they didn’t want to make mischief. To dance.

Hypocrites.

Paimon clicks his own tongue. It sounds like the cracking of bone through the air. Beside him, his host’s grandmother rises dark and twisted and glorious, her white funeral dress flapping as she plunges down. Yes. Let the May Queen meet a true ruler: the great Queen Leigh herself.

And then, finally, Paimon will begin to make the diorama of the world that he has always wanted.

*

The witches converge on the ranks of the Hårga on all sides, even as the headless black body in its white robe flies towards Dani.

It is a horror. Once, this would have been beyond belief. She wouldn’t have thought it was real. She would’ve run. It might have even destroyed her mind. But Dani has already faced her own demons. And she isn’t alone anymore.

She thinks about the previous summer, about how far she has come, and what was lost. Ingemar and Ulf, Simon and Connie, the elder couple that died together, Josh … Even Mark. Even Christian.

She will not let their sacrifices have been in vain. She will not let the fruits and roots of Midsommar be tainted.

She is prepared. Her family are ready. They have all taken the mushroom, and eaten the paste made from the Yew tree. They do not fear pain or death. They will feel what the other feels, no matter what happens next. The land protects them. It honours their sacrifices. The grass grows through them all. Old life stirs under them, even as new life begins in herself.

As the followers of the unnatural, of things that will never be held, descend onto Dani and her family, she sees the rot for what it is, and with the communal power of her people seeks to gather it, to contain it, to excise it … to burn their foes to ash and mulch and let the pain of its destruction allow the space for something new, for the continuation of only good things.

And with that, at the heart of the Hårga, the May Queen remembers herself, and begins to dance.

Ättestupa

Dedicated to Ari Aster’s Midsommar.

Dani stands at the top of the mountain.

She’s marked the rune stone with her passing, like so many others. Pelle, she knows, is behind her doing exactly the same thing. He has taken the blade across his palm, as she had done, as they had done together. After meeting their meal with the Hårga, they rose to their feet around the high table, pausing, breathing in … Dani still marvels at being able to actually breathe, even after all this time, no longer choking on grief, and pain, and suffering. No longer denying her needs, or embracing her isolation, or clinging to that old sense of incredible fear and self-loathing.

It is just her now. It is her, and Pelle, and the Hårga. Their family. Her family.

It was all a choreograph. Dani can appreciate that. And it had started long before she had ever been found by Pelle, before he befriended her and Christian, and his friends. It even transcended the festival: the ritual that brought them all together almost fifty years ago now. Even before her sister had killed herself, and their parents Dani felt different, felt separate from the daily routines of others, held aloof by fear and anxiety for her sister’s well-being, second-guessing her feelings with her friends, terrified that she was somehow spreading her own neuroses to her relationships — to Christian at the time — and telling herself to be grateful, merely grateful, of being tolerated by Christian’s friends, and an academic environment on a path going nowhere. She found her places in grief and despair. She found herself in the muted places after her family had died, placing her pain in bathrooms, quietly in her bed, away from all the people that simply couldn’t relate to it — or to her — and trying to pass, to always pass as normal and carry on the rote and rut of whatever passed as social existence in North America.

She had talked to Pelle all about it. She had opened up, like the flowers she wore as May Queen — the most beautiful and miraculous May Queen in the Hårga’s history according to the rather unbiased opinion of Pelle — and she realized that she had her own observations, her own legitimate concerns, and her opinions as well. It occurred to her now, standing on the mountaintop, just how much the place she came from didn’t understand grieving. Dani still recognizes that there is some merit to privately dealing with loss, to knowing it as part of the core of one’s identity as an individual. Recognizing one’s mortality, and limits, and the fact that all things are transitory is something that differentiates a human being from the animals. But human beings, Dani recognizes, are still social animals. They are still storytelling creatures. They look for meaning. They make their meaning. And, at their greatest, they made their meaning together.

Western society, Pelle told her once, had forgotten what is was like — as a majority — to have a place for publicly accepted grief. And she agrees. Even now, standing here, with the altitude of the air cooler than before Dani recalls her elective classes. While Christian had been the anthropology student, and poor Josh had been even more dedicated to the field — costing him everything for the sake of curiosity, consumed by personal greed — as Dani told Pelle once, she had been a psychology student. Psychology, she remembers with a faint smile on her face, not psychiatry, her introduction to mind-altering and receptive substances introduced to her by Pelle, and their family. Sigmund Freud had been terrified of “the occult,” some texts had attested, to the point of going into shock around his students, overwhelmed by the possibility of its tides “consuming Western civilization,” or some similar kind of sentiment. But Freud was the product of his time and place, a man scared of losing control and being taken over, being shamed.

There is a sweet spot, Dani knows, between psychology and literature, philosophy and myth, the curved bridge of her nose and her forehead according to Pelle’s lips, and spontaneity and the dance. One of Dani’s elective classes at college had been about World Literature. She recalls one work they had to read: a German novella called Tonio Kröger. It had been written by Thomas Mann, where his protagonist of the same name as the title attempts to understand the bourgeois society he was born into: understanding their workings, feeling superior to them, even pitying them, but ultimately being envious of their ignorance of what they were, and to what they participated themselves. But what Dani remembers the most isn’t Tonio, but the scene with the dance and the girl with the dark hair among many blonde girls and boys that tried to move like them, tried to express herself like them, tried to dance like them … and failed.

Despite her pale blonde hair and bright green eyes, Dani knew she had been that girl, deep down, and just didn’t understand that then. Not really. She just didn’t take it seriously. In a performative culture, of any kind, it was just another role, another persona. Carl Jung, Freud’s student, contemporary, and eventual rival had interlap with Thomas Mann in ideology if not personal acquaintance. Jung recognized the importance of culture and mythos as more than simply the supremacy of the phallic over the feminine, as more than just the mindless, black mud of the occult. He saw vitality in the old symbols and archetypes. He saw life.

Just a few minutes ago, Dani had looked in Pelle’s eyes down below around the table with their loved ones. She lifted her cup, as he did his own. The cup is a vessel of the feminine, containing mead and everlasting life. It had been some time since they had dressed in the white robes of summer, but now wore the sky blue tunics of the elders they had become. Pelle’s long hair had become grey, his moustache and beard growing out and marked with white. Dani herself knows her hair, that had been so pale before, had become white itself, the skin around her cheek bones more taut, crow’s feet around her eyes and accentuating the lines of her forehead. She’d hoped she would become as handsome as Siv, the matriarch before her, a fact of which Pelle never forgot to assure her. Her eyes are still green, as green as the day as she had become May Queen, in a summer that will last inside of her heart forever.

All because of the man in front of her, as they sang their last songs to each other. All because of the family that embraced her when she had lost her own.

She looks down at her family below. Their children and grandchildren stare up at her in silent adoration, in anticipation of the next moment, of one more breath. They are so beautiful. She never would have dreamed of their existence fifty years ago during more uncertain times. It makes her think about her sister, and pang of pity goes through her heart. Of course, with such destabilization, with not having that place to understand pain, she just didn’t want to be alone when the time came on her. But the cycles were off. Their parents had more time to go, a decade or two. Pelle’s own parents died, in a fire without ritual or meaning, far too young, leaving him and Ingemar before the latter was fortunate to join them latter in life by the blessing of the Hårga.

They had time with their children and grandchildren. They had time with their friends. She and Maja had also become close. She stands down there, below, smiling up at her, her own red-headed descendants in tow. Dani knows her child, now grown, is the child of Christian but she doesn’t hold it against them … or even Christian anymore. The truth of the matter is that, for it had ultimately been Pelle who had brought her here, if it hadn’t been for her relationship with Christian — if she hadn’t found the absolute rock-bottom, the spiritual nihilism, with him that she did — she would never have known Pelle, or the Hårga, and it didn’t bear thinking about where she would have been at this time in her life: if she would have even been alive … Or if she would have wanted to be.

Dani was never stupid. She knew what Christian was, deep down. She knew it would never have worked out between them in the grand scheme of things, that he held on to their tenuous, rotting, relationship out of a sense of obligation and pity … just as the Western world kept people alive long past the time they should have been gone. It was barbaric and cruel to keep someone in a withered body, their mind eroding, their desires choked in dying flesh and disintegrating faculties just for some misplaced ideal of a “sanctity for life.” Everything has its seasons, and its times, and its cycles.

Like that dance around the maypole so long ago. Dani feels the ghost of a smile on her lips, still tasting of the mead, of the kiss that Pelle gave her the night before as they made love for the last time before their supper, and song, and final farewell. The Hårga is a choreograph. A performance. A dance. They had slowly acclimated her to the rules and rites. They had shown her a place among the women as they baked and cooked and washed and oversaw the breeding of the next generation. She and Maja and all her other sisters danced together. And Pelle. Pelle saw something in her that she, at the time, did not. She had forgiven Christian long ago, the best of him living on in that child, instilled with the respect of the seasons.

Pelle had wanted her to win that dance so long ago, to become May Queen. She had already been part of the family at this point, though it definitely removed her from the lottery held at the end of the festival. He had been charged to bring others back to the commune. But nothing he did had been left to chance. He asked about her field of study when no one else had cared. He tried to talk to her about his grief when she was in pain, to relate to her. He showed her his drawings that he didn’t bother to show the others. Pelle even remembered her birthday. And when she became May Queen, whether she was meant to do so by the gods or mortals, it had been the greatest birthday of all. Dressed in flowery finery, practically waddling in it, surrounded by laughter, Dani felt her face open up. It didn’t close in sadness, but it unfolded in a smile. In joy. Pelle told her that, every day, of every moment they lived until they would leave this earth together, when he kissed the curving where her nose met her forehead that he wanted to see that smile in his mind’s eye forever: that she deserved someone and something that would make her want to smile like that. And by the gods, did she ever.

No, Dani thinks to herself, as she prepares to meet her family one last time, Freud didn’t understand this. Jung did. Jung would have known about the anima and the animus and the archetypes that make human meaning. He would have appreciated the mandala patterns of synchronous movement and placement in the ritual dinner, and daily life of the commune. He would have seen the commune embracing the anima, and the presence — the withholding — of Christian being diminished and sublimated into the procreative role they needed him to serve. Patriarchy had been consumed by occultism, but the Hårga understood too that the harmful elements of the world, such as the legendary “dark one” that made so many others dance to death, perhaps the St. Vitus Dance that once consumed Europe, was appropriated and re-appropriated by the village — by the commune — and even burned in effigy to reaffirm life itself.

A snowflake drifts down, slowly, and gracefully past Dani’s cheek on the mountain as she looks down below at those who love her. She recalls Josh laughing at them when they asked him what the Ättestupa was, only realizing later that it was a product of Nordic satire: a pale shadow of what this, right now, really is. But most of all, she thinks about when she embraced her grief on her own, alone, with no one around her, even when others were physically there, and recalling Pelle’s words about how everyone wants to held.

And the Hårga held her. They held her in pleasure and pain, in agony and in joy. And now, they will hold her one last time: with the man that she loves not far behind.

And as Dani hopes to fall as elegantly as the snowflake, without the pain of the memory of the winter where she lost everything, where she now returns to her other family, praying that neither she nor Pelle will require the mercy or the imperfection of the mallet, wishing she could see one more Midsommar but finding solace in the fact that her grandchildren will have that honour, that they will never feel awkward or out of place in the communal dance of the people they love, the wind sings around her as she leaps towards her fate.