Uthark

This is a missing scene between two different stories. It also be seen as a prequel to my fanfic “A Midsummer Night’s Dance.”

Dani starts. As the adrenaline edges off, her head lolls down, from her seat and the belt holding her in place.

It takes her a moment to remember where she is as she feels the ground moving under her. She’s … in Pelle’s car. Dani remembers now. She’d begun to nod off not long after Mark began talking about a woman with three clitorises, and a news anchor killing his wife, or something. She rubs the place where the bridge of nose curves into her forehead, visualizing her heartbeat slowing down, breathing as she had taught herself to do. It’s all right. She recalls that she still has her pills, if she needs them.

It’d been so strange. She had been dreaming. It was like the painting she had at her apartment back home, or something like it. But she was in it. It was night, and she’d been in a white dress or … was she wearing flowers? Dani can’t quite remember now. She’d been … dancing? There had been flames, and people naked in the sky, and a beast. There was a beast, and they circled around each other, and it looked at her with dark glittering eyes. It was going to eat her, like the Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. That’s what she was thinking then, but she wasn’t dressed in crimson as naked people flew in the air towards chanting people dressed in white robes. But those eyes held her in place even as they danced and danced, and she sang with the white-garbed people, and the pain didn’t exist anymore, and she belonged …

But she couldn’t stop moving, and the eyes consumed her. Something kept clicking, and clacking in her brain. The sounds and eyes devoured her, so much until she …

It says a lot about her, and her mental state between numbness and panic, that she welcomes this nightmare more than … the others. She shakes her groggy head as they continue to drive down the highway to Hälsingland, and Pelle’s commune. Christian is sitting beside her, half-asleep himself, distant as usual. Josh is quiet next to him, near the right car door. Thankfully Mark has stopped talking, even though Dani has to admit that the drone of his voice with its ridiculous stories and chatter about milkmaids and pussy almost distracted her from the crushing grief inside her chest. It probably put her to sleep. Somehow, though he is also quiet, she can see Pelle through the sun visor, looking at her sympathetically. Out of all of Christian’s friends, he has been the nicest, the most sociable at least. There is a warmth to him, in his eyes. She still hurts, but not because of him, and she feels like he knows a lot more about what is going on than she does …

Perhaps he’s always known …

A strange sense of comfort fills her at that thought as she considers where they are headed, into this strange place, leagues away from her home, her own sense of home an eternity away across a continent in an exhaust-filled house that no longer exists where it is so hard to breathe … to breathe …

A house filled with smoke, and loss. A structure on fire, and a sense of relief … 

Then she looks back to the right side of the passenger area, past Christian, to Josh and his book.

The Secret Nazi Language of the Uthark.

Dani needs to take her mind off of everything. She’s about to ask Josh about the book, with its old, faded cover. But then a sense of déjà vu fills her. Josh carries the book around for his studies into European midsummer traditions, but mostly to annoy Pelle. And she knows, somehow, that it does annoy Pelle. They must have talked about it at some point. Dani’s brow furrows. Yes. Pelle told them that his commune studies the runic alphabet. Pelle’s commune, the … they use the Germanic characters, and something else. It’s no wonder that Josh’s book annoys Pelle. The Nazi Party, and their Theosophic roots appropriated a lot of Nordic and supposedly “Aryan” culture to build their brutal worldview, to claim they were returning to something “natural” through unnatural order, and the dominance of the patriarchal over …

It’s strange. Somehow, Dani recalls someone … was it Christian? No. Something she read, perhaps? She’d only had an introductory course to Jung. Maybe Pelle, again, told her what the Uthark meant. She almost remembers …

She knows that Pelle is good-natured. He takes a ribbing from his friends, and perhaps it’s not her place to do this, but something really annoys her about that book, and Josh. Josh, for all of his genuine studiousness, doesn’t seem to actually respect the content or the people of the culture he claims to be fascinated with. His intensity is not what bothers Dani. In fact, he is at least the most cordial of the group towards her, or at least apathetic to her being there at all. But his lack of respect, especially towards Pelle. She imagines if Pelle and his commune are Jewish or Roma.

She is about to say something, turning to Josh, but Josh and Christian are gone. There is a boy near the window. He’s tall, but slouched over with greasy dark hair. His skin his sallow, and his nose is covered by a bandage. It looks like it’s been broken. Dani blinks, and Josh in his place again. She looks down, and the book is gone, replaced with a pile of papers. The writing is runic or children’s pictures. Dani feels dizzy as she blinks again, and the boy is there, staring out the window. Dani doesn’t know what to do, or say. They are on a journey. It’s important. It’s important to get to where they need to go, and she needs to know what’s going on.

“Excuse me?” She croaks, realizing how dry her throat is. “Excuse me?”

The boy doesn’t respond to her. He continues to look out the passenger window at the declining road.

“Pardon me.” Dani tries again, getting more spittle into the back of her throat.

The boy turns towards her. There is some confusion in his eyes.

“Hello?” He asks.

“What are you reading?” Dani finds herself asking instead.

The boy looks down at where Dani is staring. In his hand, where Josh had been holding The Secret Nazi Language of the Uthark is a manuscript titled Cocoon Man. “I … don’t know.” He says after a while. “Is this yours?”

Dani’s head aches. She rubs the bridge of her nose again. “I don’t … think so.”

“I …” Dani can see the boy becoming pale, the air around them darkening. When it did become evening? “I can’t breathe …”

Dani’s eyes widen in concern, and sympathy. “I can’t either.”

The boy’s face seems to swell in the growing shadows. “Where is she … Mom told me to take her with me. We can’t leave her alone.”

“Terri?” Dani leans forward, reaching a hand, as the interior of the car becomes even murkier.

“I can’t ,.. breathe. I … how can anyone breathe in here …”

And then, the car is filled with smoke. And fumes. The car exhaust pipe’s been reversed. Dani can’t breathe. She’s choking. She is suffocating on the toxins in the air, inside of her, and the group is back. Christian, Josh, Mark, and Pelle. They are dying, with her. She’s coughing, pounding on her door, on her window. There is a sound that is trying to fight its way out of her lungs, out of her vocal chords.

“I can’t … breathe …”

Somehow, even through the fumes and her wracking coughing, Dani can see the others have changed. It isn’t Christian’s friends. Her mother and father are sitting next to her. And Terri, Terri is staring grotesquely, covered in her own bile, into the the sun visor as she drives them right into the abyss, into hell.

“I can’t … breathe …”

Dani abruptly turns, and sees the boy, scrabbling at his own window, crying.

And then, the boy’s window is open. It is night, and they can breathe again as the smog is released outside, sucked out into the air amid clacking, shouting, laughing, and chanting. The boy’s shoulders heave, as Dani tries to catch her own breath until the hissing of the exhaust becomes buzzing, and the smoke going out are insects hovering all around her, trying to get into her lungs, into her skin, into her mind …

The boy turns around, the wind whipping against them. His head is hung out the window, but he is looking back at her. She sees his dark eyes glittering into her own. She doesn’t think.

“Spirits!” Dani exhales.“Back to the dead!”

The boy’s swelling face, or a girl’s, or a bear’s stretches out into an ‘o’ of surprise, as a telephone pole rushes past them, and clips off his head. Dani screams, as the car flips over, upside down, into the air, and falls up into the night …

Until they wake up in another place.

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.