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.