Another Revolution

On Fame’s eternal camping-ground
Their silent tents are spread,
But Glory guards, with solemn round
The bivouac of the dead.
— Theodore O’Hara, “The Bivouac of the Dead”

They marched among the geometrical angles of granite tombstones, wearing simulated gore and affected awkward staggering gaits, carrying upraised signs made of stick handles and Bristol boards with bloody running red lettering.

Among the people dressed in dried red, white and green make-up, purposefully tattered clothing and horror film t-shirts, were people in uniform. Some of them wore dark helmets and dark-blue padding with realistic plastic rifles and riot gear in hand. They seemed to wave the macabre crowd along with plastic severed limbs: at least those that weren’t holding signs of a merry skeleton man with a top hat and cigar between his teeth pointing and proclaiming, “Baron Samedi Wants You!” or “Occupy the Evans City Chapel! Donate Your Flesh!”

For all the attention it received, the Chapel was a square structure of stacked old grey cement blocks with a steeple-roof of dark slate, and a chimney of faded red bricks. If someone looked closely at the base of the building, they would have seen green mould slowly and almost verdantly eating away at its foundations.

It had once been used as a storage-shed ages ago, before it was finally boarded-up altogether and left a hollow shell: its emptiness dignified with the remnants of almost forgotten hallowedness. But its simple crumbling elegance cast a long shadow of significance over the minds of its protesters, its guardians, its revellers and its other self-appointed friends as they gathered near the grounds of its long-sealed front door.

Whatever these fifty-odd some people saw on the path amongst the gravestones in front of their modest, aging Mecca and beyond the frame of a black and white reality, they all wanted to be here. Most of the Event’s participants were enthusiastic locals, some particularly devoted interstate and even international tourists. The other group that came into the Evans City Cemetery, on the other hand, did not seem local but they were–in their way–no less eager to be there.

The newcomers did not go to the Chapel. Instead, they moved past it. Some of them walked with a familiar stiffness, ramrod straight spines and a seeming lack of joints: with deep blue eyes that glittered from sallow faces in the setting sun. Others were more sombre or even more colourful heaps of mouldering robes that hopped or leapt alongside their compatriots: jumping with arms open enough to embrace the entire world.

Others wore darker investments: grey and black medieval armour, closed visors and ragged peasant garb. Some of the new arrivals hulked over the others: seeming to rise up from the ground like earthen blue-black shadows and wearing helmets of sharpened horns.

Still more followed them: large and small and some in more than worse for wear contemporary clothing carrying bits of playing equipment, tools and debris. Bloated and emaciated green things in rags crawled and whispered after them, and in the lengthened shadows it seemed as though they did not always have a shape at all. Lean beasts followed them with raised hackles and similar expressions of living greed on their muzzles and in their eyes.

Some were writhing, undulating wild-eyed women bathed in old red and cloying vinegar-wine as they alternatively fell over and prostrated themselves in erratic procession; while others were black-haired, dark-skinned, beautiful hollow-eyed women gliding in fine dresses and sporting long, long, fingernails. A significant proportion of the assembling throng were even more skeletal: shrivelled and brown caricatures that walked slowly and ably. Two of them looked like little girls in tattered old dresses holding smoking cups in their hands: their eyes silvery cobwebs of intent.

In front of them loomed a pillar of Quincy granite: nineteen feet high and surmounted by the figure of an eagle perched on a globe. As the grisly travellers surrounded it, its shadow consumed them and they became a part of the evening that it dwelled in. One side was inscribed with the names of forty-five dead men, while another was carved with an emblem of a wreath with crossed swords.

They had travelled all this way to congregate at this one point: the old Civil War memorial stone known as The Soldiers’ Monument. Anyone else in the Cemetery might have wondered why there was so much attention and security paid to the road and the Chapel, but not for the old war memorial. Yet no one other than the throng moved towards this spot. And so they waited.

They did not wait quietly. At first, the stillness was broken by a faint nearby rattling reminiscent of dry hollow bamboo tubes clattering against one another.

Gachi gachi … gachi gachi …

As though in sympathy, parts of the throng itself began to shuffle restlessly. A few gaunt forms covered with shaggy hair peered forlornly at their fellows with bloated faces and held out delicious ethereal food. This food went ignored.

Grumbling shadows seemed to shift back and forth above the closest gravestones, as the motley assortment began to moan and bang their makeshift tools on the nearby graves. The robed group began to hop impatiently in one place. The unseen ones stomped their shrunken feet in defiant rhythm. The brittle moving antiques that were the two girls walked through the throng with their two steaming cups, their soft voices mournfully chiming, “Cafe grille … Cafe grille …”

Even while the freshest among the ranks began to growl and hiss at each other, and the fat and thin green shifting creatures with their hyena brethren whispered to each other like sand and Arabic, a few of the figures in the front closest to the Monument remained solemn and patient.

One of them was a white-eyed woman with skin the texture of old coffee and dressed in the habit of a nun. Another was a man in a World War I Canadian Major’s uniform with a waxen blank-looking face and a black bag at his side. People arranged in a wide assortment of shapes surrounded him. They remained still, they and the shrivelled white-eyed brown ones. The latter held vintage bottles that seemed to flutter with eerie lights. They did not offer these to anyone as they stood near the nun. The two girls skipped to her side and she put a weathered hand on both of their wispy heads.

And so they waited. And so they wait. They wait for me. The vetala.

What is past is now present and what will be is now. Even as the evening comes, as it has come several times before, and the blue, black and pale-skinned Draugar bathe themselves in the fox-fire light of their trollskap runes, and the Jiangshi resemble Chinese paper lanterns filled with glow-worms, I come. I appear at the top of The Soldiers’ Monument: my feet balancing on the eagle statue as though I am a fallen angel perching on the head of a pin.

I smile a serene, demoniac smile as I lean forward. With a balance and flexibility that would put any enlightened yogi to shame, I hang down from the top of the pillar and my sightless eyes stare into each and every one of them. Now they are all still. I have their attention.

“The living claim to know our stories,” I begin, “but only the dead may tell them,” I look through all of them, “Speak.”

I am the vetala. I hear their stories. They speak to me. They speak to each other. They speak to each other in the rustling words and fading dactyls of our kind. Although their words are disparate, they are all unified under one scraping dissonant mother tongue: the language of the dead.

The elders speak first. Some are dressed in furs, archaic bronze, gold and rotten silk. They wail about the stories their fleshly tribes and descendants told, hidden away in their caves and ancient homes at night, while they raged outside pounding the doors: demanding sacrifice or just to be among the living again.

The Ro-Langs say they are tired of being created and hunted by sorcerers and Buddhist priests for their tongues and their golden bones. The Nachzehr contingent in the Cemetery say they have grown to despise having their graves intruded on and having coins shoved into their mouths. The few remaining native Skadegamutc–their long skeletal forms pulsing with stolen blood and their hair tied into feathered braids open their fanged maws to release whooping war cries into the air–decry the loss of their lodges, being forced to dwell in holes in the ground, and the burning finality of fire.

Many murmur among the gathering in sympathy. The shaggy Bukwus lament the fact that the living no longer take their offerings of food, nor join them in the waters. The mariner Drang nod their seaweed-encrusted heads in agreement and state in vehement Germanic that they are sick of being spat on. In equally fluent German, distorted only by the gnashing of their teeth into their death-shrouds underground, the Nachzehr rebuke the Drang with their livid, gesturing shadows: telling them that at least they didn’t have to worry about getting their heads cut off.

These exchanges bring another large murmur of agreement: especially from the Wiedergänger and their European revenant cousins. The Jiangshi say nothing but continue to jump around ignorant of glutinous rice, peach-wood, the I Ching and their own reflection while everyone else is aware of the funerary-mockery of self-transport that sorcerers first made of their bodies. Mostly, they are impatient for more qi. From its sprawling place near the corner of the Monument, the giant collection of the bones from a multitude of starved human beings called the Gashadokuro reiterates this sentiment with a loud rustling gachi gachi giving even the other assembled dead reason to pause.

Even so, the Ro-Langs are quick to mention their solidarity with the Jiangshi and add that they are also tired of having their tongues ripped out to become occult-swords. This draws the ire of the beautiful Pontianak: hissing that just as they were victims in life of the men that impregnated them and forced them to die at childbirth, so too do they still continue to abuse them after their deaths by driving nails through the backs of their necks and cutting off their long nails to make them “more docile” as wives.

Most of the ones arguing now, while a little more numerous than the elders, are fewer than the majority: with even fewer of the living in their native lands telling their stories every day. With some exceptions, theirs are complaints that have less to do with current persecution and more to do with past wrongs, restlessness and hunger.

Out of all of them, it is the Draugar that are collectively the loudest.  The walking remnants of the Northmen boast about their achievements in strength and power, how it took the will of a true hero to wrestle them back into their howes. They say that the living can cut off their heads or burn them to ash, but that they will fight it all the way and retake the world that was once their own. They taunt the other dead, calling them cowards and mindless shells: commanding them to fight.

One of the revenants laughs hoarsely and points out the ever-present truth: the Draugar are few and most of their barrow-homes have been lost. Even with their power and lore of the dead, they are too few to reclaim their own lands of ice and darkness themselves: never mind the entire world. The Draugar become angry: proclaiming they will get all the reinforcements they need from their brethren in Hel once the ships made from dead men’s nails set sail.

The wax-faced Major steps forward. Even as he points at his twisted companions, his voice comes from the black bag in his hand: explaining in a muffled yet cultured tone that he and his fellow Re-animates were the result of horrible medical experiments that forever robbed them of the gift and dignity of death that is the right of all living beings. After they found each other, they methodically hunted down and killed their creator for his crimes against them and defying the will of Nature.

The elders and the avenging dead add their cries to the Major’s words, and even the brown-skinned zonbi contingent in their silence and with their shimmering glass bottles–by their very nature still full of purpose–incline their heads slightly with mutual respect. The nun–the Mother Superior Marie M.–finally speaks.

She talks of how her young body was abducted from her grave and family by a bokor in her native Haiti where she was made into his slave: only for his wife to attempt to sell her until, finally, she was brought to stay at a convent in France where she has been ever since the early twentieth century. Until now. From my vantage point hanging upside down and slowly swinging from the memorial, back and forth like a pendulum between life and death, I nod at her and the Canadian soldier-doctor.

The more numerous modern dead are also angry and hungry. They are not as articulate as the others, but they make their case clear. They throw their debris. They roar. Some of them stagger at each other while others tense and lunge with swift viciously mindless animal instinct.

They cease just as I stop my swinging. From the Chapel, I can already sense some of those who are with child clutching at their bellies from the Draugar’s auras: not enough to kill, but just strong enough to cause discomfort for those not-yet-born. It seems that as this gathering continues, the Pontianak may yet gain more sisters.  Everyone and even the newest among us are cowed by the presence of the vision I have not revealed yet.

I am the vetala. I am the storyteller. I take the story of my being and I shrug out of it–a layer of ego–as I curl up to stand again on the stone eagle and let the tale tell itself.  I point at the words that my body once concealed on the Monument, words they have all waited to see, “We are the bivouac of the dead.”

At my words, I sense a woman at the Chapel cramping into miscarriage. I continue.

“We exist on ground without walls or protection. The living has the luxury of walls between them and the night of us. We have nothing to protect us except us: the cycle of us. The elders understand it best. This world is not linear,” I spread out my arms, “We have no walls because we do not defend. We were the fierce hunger for life given purpose incarnate. We were the agency of celestial wrath and vengeance. But then, we were usurped.”

I lose myself further into the role of storyteller, “The living began to tell our stories. They took them from us. In them, we lost our divine masters and exchanged them for fleshly ones. For millennia after,” I glance poignantly at the zonbi, “in their stories we served the will of witches and sorcerers. We were their servants and their familiars. Their slaves. And those of us that came about without human agency were considered mistakes of Nature and linear Time. There are no coincidences,” I point one long skeletal finger at them all, “and those of us that were made free to appease our hunger were hunted down, burned, decapitated, mutilated and destroyed.

“Only those few like the Ghilan were free,” I finally turn back to look at them — some of the green-fleshed ones, “They are the ghül: a word used to describe us all because of what many of us are compelled to eat … and kill. They were free … in their deserts, haunts, and the abandoned ruins of cities … until Prince Gherib’s forced ‘Conversion of the Ghouls.’”

A sullen, angry rumble begins to grow, “For all here know that it took more than just one day to accomplish and that it was more than merely one Tribe. To this day the story of what happened to the Ghilan–to the ghül–is a lie still told by the living to their children,” I spit the last word, “as entertainment.

“The Ghilan–particularly the Tribe of Saadan–lost their fortresses and treasures in Arabia for the simple crime of keeping property, for eating the meat and bones of things that could no longer move nor even feel! Some fought, but most did not. They were–are–merely survivors and scavengers of food and scraps of knowledge. Very few Ghilan even kill the living, yet even so many of them were sent anyways to ‘sup with Iblis’ during the ‘conversions.’

“The rest of us were no better off.”

I jump down to the base of the Monument, “You have heard the Ro-Langs, the zonbi, and even the Jiangshi. Most of us could not even be conceived of to exist without the aid or presence of a fleshly master. Some of us, like the revenants, occurred ‘naturally’ but were promptly obliterated by fire, prayer and mantra. But some of us learned to rebel.

“Indeed, many of my kindred were powerful enough to do so. I remember the day, millennia ago, when I came to my vamachari’s side–the mortal responsible for binding the churning spirit of me to this cold, dead matter for my knowledge–and I wrapped my fingers around his neck and slowly squeezed the life out of him with my cold, dead left hand. It was one of the few moments I truly wished my own flesh was not unfeeling,” I let the old fury of that ego dissipate as I relax my left fist and become the storyteller again, “Yet even then there were too few of us to do anything more.”

I gesture at the zonbi delegation, “It truly began in West Africa, on an island called St. Domingo in the year of 1791. Slaves taken from many African nations rebelled against their slavers for twelve years until they overthrew them. From the chaos formed an entirely new nation. However, what no one knew was that a few of the former slaves were bokors and they possessed zonbi. The zonbi, however, were not free of their masters. Yet.”

I raise my hands, “That day, in the place that would become Haiti, a new narrative was formed: a story of slaves freeing themselves forever from their masters. And this time, instead of the living learning from the dead, the dead began to learn from the living.

“1863: the very land we stand on now, the place that bought many of those living slaves from St. Domingo, undergoes the Civil War that created the very Monument that I now stand on. This same nation then proclaims manumission for all its slaves! A few freed bokors and, more importantly, their zonbi were also there. And they learned another story.”

I point at the zonbi delegation, “Do you know what they hold in their hands? A zonbi is created when a bokor takes their soul and puts it in a jar. The bokor takes away the zonbi’s name and memories. The bokor keeps their souls in these jars to increase their own strength or sell them to buyers for luck and healing. Souls have become commodities.

“Over time, Marie M. and others have tracked down all zonbi and their names and reminded them of who they are. They carefully crafted a network with others, finding the bokors and their servants. By the end of the twentieth century, all true bokor have gone slowly and quietly extinct and the souls in the jars before you now are not those of the zonbi. They are the souls of their bokors.”

The dead are silent now, but not because they have become inanimate. I hold up one hand. I am not done yet.

“As the bokors and others like them disappeared,” I nod to the wax-faced doctor and a few others, “the living began to tell each other another story. It is not until 1968 that this new narrative fully manifests. The combination of tensions caused by war creates a new era of protests all over the world and in this land: protests against violence and discrimination.

“Also during this time something else happens. Feeding off of the confluence of conflicting energies, a new story is recorded here: created to become a whole new narrative!”

I spread my arms as though to mimic the Jiangshi, to encompass the whole Cemetery, “We above all others know the earth has power. Here, we were reborn. Can you not feel the power of the founding place, in the grave soil coursing through you? We were made to embody the menace hiding right in front of their eyes!”

I turn to the newest, largest part of our gathering, “And you are the epidemic! We have masters no longer! This knowledge: this real fear of an insidious, unreasoning, creeping cancer over the whole of humanity becomes us. But what’s more is simple. I am the vetala. I see Space and Time like no other. I know the secrets and the power of names and words. It was when they called us zombies–after our first liberated brethren–that we began to understand ourselves … and our final transformation began.”

I look at them all for one last time, as I know that very soon the time of the storyteller will be over and that the story will begin soon.

“2012,” I let my voice become a whisper softer than a child’s dying breath, “From the year before, a multitude of scattered protests–only tenuously related as Occupations–crop into being all wanting one thing: change. Here, in this very town, a few of them meld together: into another confluence.

“Many believe this is the final year of linear Time and they invest into it their fear of death: into a great sense of urgency. And here, in this Cemetery, at the Chapel with its charged residue of the story that changed us, at the anniversary of its genesis, the living gather their most vital energies to save their Chapel: to save us … to join us.

“My brethren,” I proclaim, “it was our will consumed fully by our perpetual hunger that enslaved us and now the very recognition of this fact–this same eternal craving for life–will move this world forward and forever.

“I have seen this! I am the storyteller. I am the vetala and soon we will all become the story!”

And then I am no longer the vetala. There is no longer any storyteller. They are the story now. They cheer as the vetala lets himself be carried away into the throng with open arms. In unison the throng of the dead turns away from The Soldiers’ Monument towards the Evans City Chapel: an army that no longer needs walls. But before they move, something appears in front of them.

It is the shrunken brown figure of a dwarf: one of the formerly unseen Tokoloshe. The eyeless, tongueless being croaks at them all: telling them that they will not be privy to the hurting of children. The two zonbi girls stare at it, then slowly bring their cups of steaming, eerily quailing liquid to their mouths and drink. The Tokoloshe seems to consider this for a moment and nods. Then it bites down on the pebble in its mouth and disappears again.

The evening gives way to the night, as the dead smell the ambient energies of life force and blood and meat–of fate–saturating this focal point where they would now re-imagine themselves for themselves.

Then they begin to participate in the feast that is to come.

Evans City Soldiers’ Monument Photo Credit: J.W. Ocker
Evans City Chapel Photo Credit: The Terror Daves

Dark Crystal: Connection

From the moment they entered this world, YiYa knew that Thra was special.

Even though they had come through the Crystal of their homeworld as exiles—transported here to deal with the imbalances within themselves as this world came to its next Conjunction—it was no coincidence that they had been brought here. YiYa firmly believed that there was a reason they had been sent to Thra: so much so that now, when the prospect of finally returning to their homeworld came, it leaves him feeling … unfulfilled somehow.

The two Gelfling and the Podling representative, along with the Landstriders that brought them here to watch this moment in the Crystal Chamber fascinate him. In fact, every life-form on Thra—from Aughra and her son, to the Gelfling civilizations, even to the nebrie—all fascinate him. He never dreamed of this. Never in what was a million of this world’s trine did he ever conceive of such a variety of life even existing in the multitude of possibilities that the Universe had to offer.

Even now, holding the stave that Aughra made for all of them, YiYa remembers SoSu abjuring the urSkek Collective’s decision to banish him along with the others. He told them that he had committed no crime: he did not know what he was doing and that he had no place with them. But YiYa interrupted them. He had been so curious. He always wanted to know not so much how, but why. He was the youngest of the eighteen. Only the most discerning of Thra could see that he was a little smaller and brighter than his other brethren. And always wandering. He could never stay still unless the occasion demanded for it.

That time on their homeworld he had been reverberating with eagerness, just as he was with reluctance at this time now in the Chamber. The Collective had said that the mere act of wanting to explore was enough to place him out of consensus and into the dangerous sense of individuality that the other seventeen found themselves in. YiYa had felt such fear and joy that time when he was allowed to join his brethren—his adventurous brethren—to see another world after developing such complexities within himself: to not be uniform again. He also recalled SoSu’s sad eyes as he told him that this would be a great burden, these barely controlled passions that they had: that it would be sad that he would have to learn of his role in another world. Still, SoSu vowed that he and the others would watch over him and that they would return here together when they did what needed to be done.

YiYa grew up, in a fashion, on Thra. He watched TekTih interact and examine the organic and the inorganic parts of this world. He heeded SoSu’s counsels and maintained meditations with UngIm. But sometimes he would follow SaSan into his voyages under the various oceans or be made to assist LachSen in helping the Gelfling keep a census of their populations. His favourite times, however, ones that he looked back at mournfully as the three suns of Thra were coming together, were the journeys with the wandering GraGoh and MalVa. MalVa had always seemed the most solemn among the exiles. YiYa, in the beginnings of millennium they spent together, always asked him what it had been like to hunt and to pursue an enemy in battle such as in the first times before the Collective. It always struck YiYa, that look on MalVa’s face, as he told him with some weariness that it was a feeling that he should be thankful to never understand.

The taking of a life was hard—this was something MalVa had always tried to instill into him—and should only be done when all other possibilities were exhausted. Almost a thousand trine on Thra and YiYa had seen life take life, and observed the checks and the balances of such. Sometimes it seemed so arbitrary and cruel, but over time there was a pattern. There was always a pattern.

Far away from Gelfling ears, he’d told the others his theories. He asked them how they could come to a world built on the very principles they said they held dear: of realities of three angles encircling the perfect unity of a sphere and not be moved by its lessons. Had they not seen the skeletal structures of the Gelfling and the Landstriders as tripartite? Couldn’t they sense Aughra—as the avatar of this world’s elemental energies—with her three eyes as embodying their ideal?

So why, he asked them, why was it so hard to believe that this place that had such an intermingling of Light and Dark—in the multifaceted nature of the Crystal with its crossing lines and angles no less—had nothing to teach them about their own darkness? Couldn’t they find a way to coexist with it as the lifeforms of this world had? Was it really wise to try to suppress or purge those inclinations but instead, somehow, integrate them and learn more from it?

But the others said that YiYa, though young and bright, had much to learn and the evolution of life on Thra had even more so. But then YiYa had brought up the Gelfling and the Pod People and asked them, after spending so much time among them—for as much as they had been comfortable—and asked how such a peaceful people could evolve on a world of Light and Dark if Light and Dark contrasted as much as the urSkeks said. ZokZah warned him to be mindful of his thoughts—to be careful of straying beyond the heresy they’d all already fallen deep into—and the others remained silent. YiYa would have spoken more about this had not SoSu adjourned their meeting.

YiYa didn’t understand. Perhaps this was what Raunip—Aughra’s child—felt whenever he told her that she didn’t see everything when she looked at them. The urSkeks could hear their conversations well enough, but chose to say nothing. But YiYa, who always tried to befriend Aughra’s hostile hybrid son, now wonders if there was something to those claims that even he could not fully see.

YiYa levitates in the circle of his brethren around the Crystal as it hovers over the Lake of Fire: as it began to glow. As it begins to happen. He fights against the inclination to look at the two Gelfling. The Sifa Gyr with his tear-drop scar and the pale highborn Vapra Kel stand there and watched their leave-taking from this wonderful, fascinating place. Their hands inch together and YiYa remembers …

After that fateful meeting where he spoke out, SoSu wished to talk with him. As the other urSkeks went out to fulfill their tasks and duties, the two urSkeks had hovered across the green land around the Focal Point—or “the Castle” as the Gelfling called it—and observed the stars in the sky. YiYa recalled seeing the faint rays of the Rose Sun and the twilight of its Dying Brother as the Greater Sun had rotated away for the night. They weren’t as close this time: the Greater Sun always dominating, always there, but only barely touching the Rose—a tousle between brothers, the Gelfling told him—and the Dying Sun was still, far, far away. But because of what he and SoSu were, they could see the spheres of energy and their concentric circles of power and influence gradually, ever so gradually, rippling into each other until—inevitably—all three would cross again just as they had that fateful day almost a thousand trine ago.

SoSu asked YiYa then what he had seen. Even though his role was undefined as of yet and they all remained individuals, YiYa was still part of the collective consciousness that all eighteen made up. To an extent, he access to all their thoughts and experiences—their feelings—but as time went on, even with their strides towards calming the turbulence inside of them, YiYa did not see everything. But they did not see what he saw either. What many did not know, outside of the eighteen, was that YiYa sometimes had flashes of insight along the multifaceted angles of the Universe: the circle of himself still young and growing into lines that had not completely formed yet.

These flashes of actual prescience, like solar flares in his very being, motivated YiYa into finding out more: more about Thra and why of all places they came here. YiYa told SoSu then about the Gelfling—and to some extent the Podlings but the Gelfling in particular—and how they were growing. How they would face that time. As they themselves had long ago.

It didn’t surprise YiYa when SoSu told him that he had also seen this and more. The elder urSkek believed that they had been sent to Thra not just to purify themselves and reincorporate into the Collective, but to help another developing species manage their burgeoning abilities. The ability to dreamfast—to make a rudimentary Collective—was indicative of this crucial and potentially dangerous development should an imbalance between individuals occur. It would only be with the Crystal properly and naturally honed that the Gelfling could reach their potential. SoSu told YiYa what the urSkeks had always known: that each world was a gradation of reality and that, as far as their perceptions reached, the Crystal of Thra was the strongest and most clear version of all the world-Crystals that had ever existed: the archetype of what it was to be the Crystal: an ur-Crystal, for lack of a better word.

It was no accident they were summoned here for, as YiYa was told that night by SoSu, just as this Crystal would help repair them; they would also help the Gelfling find their way. Nothing comes from nothing, YiYa recalls now, and everything has an equivalent exchange of influence and interaction. Everything is connected. SoSu’s belief was that they would show the Gelfling and others that understood that Darkness had to be overcome or controlled for Light to prevail and be refracted through the natural angles of their being: that through this act of hard-work, discipline and humility that they would also purify themselves and ascend back to a proper balance.

But now, as YiYa floats in his place—no longer the erratic young urSkek he’d been and knowing what was at stake—he wonders if SoSu’s thoughts were merely one interpretation of their role. His brethren were proud of him however. As preparations for their guests and the ritual had occurred, and they bemusedly watched AyukAmaj indulge in his speciality and prepare his material sustenance for their guests, SoSu had told him that he had almost reached his own role. Even HakHom, the primary architect of the Focal Point and a contributor of Gelfling artistry, told him that YiYa had been building on sound foundations and that soon, back in their world, he would add another newer pattern to the complex of the urSkek Collective.

Yet YiYa kept his secret: too young to access the confidence of his elders and their specific experiences. He still saw the Light and Dark struggling. He wonders if, deep down, it would ever stop. If it ever should stop … if it ever did…

And then it happens.

SilSol. He had been … discordant somehow after talking with the Gelfling: the being that YiYa had wanted to also talk with, but decided to leave alone in order to help his brethren with the ritual despite his nagging sense of curiosity. But now it is worse. Somehow, they still hold up their star-staves: despite something … something coming. The suns are coming together. The power flowing through them now is tremendous and for the second time in his existence YiYa feels transcendent and alive and all the mysteries of the infinity open up and despite everything drilled into him, he wants to explore them all …

But SilSol, who had been so red, darkens. Raunip, that unique hybrid, antagonizes him. SilSol had never liked Raunip. In fact, despite his interest for all life on Thra, YiYa never had opportunity to even talk with Aughra that much: that honour being mostly reserved for TekTih with whom she had been closer. YiYa himself had apparently been “too annoying” and she had wanted to be the one to “ask the questions,” not him. But SilSol had been sulking for a while: lost in his sad music where he thought none of the others could find him save SaSan that always fetched him from his favourite voyages in the water. This world had changed them all, but SilSol not for the better.

YiYa can see the darkness inside SilSol squirming against something luminous. It is like there was a war raging inside of him. And that was when YiYa sees it.

That is when he finally sees it.

The others also have that Darkness. It isn’t a name or an urge anymore. It is right there—incarnate and inside of them—raging and raging to get out. And something else, something gentle and light quivers around it: like the rippling gelatinous insides of the organic beings of this world. YiYa feels it too. The surge to set out and keep going, that fascination at all costs rages—rages—against the love he had for his brethren, for the Gelfling, for the Podlings he celebrated with, for Aughra and Thra’s balance and his need to help … It is too much. That one discordant note that Sil … Sol … Sil…. Sol…

It is agony. Two halves in three-angles. How can there just be two … the darkness … dark … rk … radiance … rad … r … Words and concepts from another time, before urSkek … the Collective … Sol…. soul … the ur came first … that ascended death … and Skek … the body, the hungry, scared, creeping, living body that died … died … died …

The Crystal explodes into such Light: making them see, see, See … Then nothing … nothing … noth…

…Yi … ragged plumage, purple scales. A gnashing beak. He looks at his claws and feels a cackle deep in his throat. And … Ya … soft yellow skin with swirls on its flesh. He feels sleepy and ponderous. Yi hears the growls and trills of his brothers … they look and revel in themselves. They are free. They are all free. No voices in them. Just them.

Ya … looks around at his … befuddled brethren. Yes, they are his brothers. He blinks. It feels as though something, someone had been a dream and he has just woken up. He feels lighter. He remembers someone’s … others’ terms for the light part of a soul.

Ur … The first to awaken.

He looks at his closer brother at … at Hom … at urHom and urHom looks back: his long spindly fingers playing as though looking for a toy he lost before … sleep. And he is urYa … urYa knows he has been sleeping for a long time. But now he is awake.

UrYa looks across the Chamber at the others … and feels a part of himself still unaware. Still gloating and planning. He doesn’t understand … until he sees the others in the room. The … Gelfling and the Podling. Yes. They came by Landstrider. Noble beings: they know the balance of Nature intrinsically: implicitly. And Aughra and her wayward son…

SkekYi … yes, that is his name. And he knows many other names too. He has the power of them. More than even his brethren. Yessss … Looking at his claws and knowing how tall he is, newborn as he is, he knows how to Soulspeak, how to control the dreamfasting … the little fools trusted him once … and the connections to the Earth through the avatar and her deformed mutant offspring. They thought him a nuisance … he would destroy them. He would explore all parts of them until he grew bored. And then, then he would turn their secrets against them and show them how truly meaningless they all were … make the animals eat each other as he laughed … and laughed…

UrYa blinks, a newborn come from recent sleep, and sees Skek … Yi destroying all life on Thra … deforming the dreams of the Gelfling, poisoning all life with his twisted parody of Soulspeech, etching profanities in all sleeping minds … it is awful. And he wants to stop it, to stop him but he can’t … he can’t … he….

One of the other Skeksis turns to urYa. SkekHak … they regard each other. Hatred blooms in the reptilian being’s eyes and he lunges forward. It seems so slow, but in reality it is beyond time.

And then … urYa remembers.

Suddenly, it is fast. This concept of fast and slow is alien to them, and it comes to their minds so fleetingly compared to the totality of what others could perceive not long ago, oh so long ago … This … it happens so fast: as fast as the speed at which his former self … their former selves used to think and affect the reality around them.

UrYa knows that they were all one not too long ago. And this was the price of trying to control and separate their Darkness. SkekHak’s talons close around his throat. He looks into the hateful gaze of the being that his brother fought against forever. And he sees a horror. UrYa sees SkekHak the Machinist: a Skeksis creating a multitude of weapons, siege weapons, motley war engines and mechanistic terrors. He would dig up the bowels of Thra and pollute it with its own excavated waste. The Gelfling, not knowing their own Darkness enough yet to embrace combat for self-defence and innovation, would fall … fall to the Skeksis with SkekHak’s machines…

The claws tighten around urYa’s pulsating throat. His new-found vision is darkening again, from dream into death … All of them. All of the Skeksis will bring ruin … they were the threat. They were the threat, the potential of what the Gelfling could become. That was why … why Thra, the Crystal wanted them … To teach them, to warn them … but it didn’t have to be … be like … like…

UrYa sees his own brothers. He sees a Valley like the parts of their old world before they … the ur…Skeks had fully evolved. And urHom beside him … the builder, the Carpenter … making refined structures of beauty and repairing what the Gelfling lost for every city lost…

But is it enough? Does it make up for so much?

And with his dimming eyes, urYa understands again. They don’t know. No one here knows. But he has to show them.

Everything is connected.

Despite the passivity infusing his very being, his sweat-soaked brown hair against his smooth yellow skin, urYa knows that he can fight back. He more than knows how to defend himself. A remnant of his corona glimmers next to urHom. And he thinks he hears … something from urHom: a faint dulcet hum. And he knows that his brother understands him. UrYa saw it. He knows that SkekHak will kill him today: just as he knows that the Machinist would destroy and eventually one day build more destruction. But not now. He is too young and immature. Too lustful for killing. He would move on to as many … urRu as he could … like urHom.

Far away, he can see skekYi choking. SkekYi who doesn’t have a role yet … an infant monster … everything urYa is not. He can see him though, see what he became see him as…

SkekYi the Nihilist. SkekYi would obliterate all meaning … but he is choking, he is suffocating and he doesn’t know why. The others, his filthy brothers stand there and watch him. Wretched traitors, wretched things, he wish he could destroy them too, deform them further, and make them pay, always underestimating him…

UrYa does not underestimate the monster he used to live with. He doesn’t dare. He can only hope that the other Skeksis will be too stupid and their depravity will end. But he sees them, older, later, in finery and committing horrors and that SkekHak’s next murder leading to his flaming ruin will show them what they are in a purely crude way, will show them for what they are….

Instead, urYa closes his eyes. The darkness is soothing. He is falling asleep again, even as the nightmare across from him suffocates in its cradle. He wills his brothers to see … and he feels them understand. And the Gelfling and Podling … Because of this, they will not have to face the Machinist or Nihilist. He can do that much. Perhaps this moment will teach them as well … will pass into a legend or a small myth to warn future generations to come one day when that Great, awful awful Shattering that happened, that will happen, that is happening can be repaired and made whole …

The elders had been destroying themselves in this exile, but this would stop it. This would show them … the two Gelfling almost holding hands, male and female, Darkness and Light, there is always a third way … they always lived the third way …

They thought that the Gelfling had to learn from them, but they had just as much to learn from the Gelfling in their crucible of Light intermixed with Dark, with life … in their new home…

Everything is connected, urYa remembers, letting himself relax, letting himself die, willing his brothers—everyone—to see before, finally, he sleeps forever: his nightmare dying with him, and his dream living on.

*

The urRu gather together in the sands of the Valley. They had prevented the quake of the Crystal’s cracking from destroying the Gelfling, Podling, and their mounts. They are humming: their deep voices resonating and complementing each other’s.

One the tallest among them, urSu, closes his eyes. He remembers watching urYa stand and let SkekHak drain the life from him with his bare hands. He saw some of what the other did and knew what it meant … what it all meant.

And as the youngest had grown slack in the Skeksis’ hands, they all saw.

His lower arms scoop up the sand in front of him. There were no remains to bury: urHom incinerated silently into flame and urYa vanished with his demise. There is nothing left of them except for the wind in their lungs and their dreams. He takes the coloured sand and gently blows it into the air: wishing for the passing of urHom—urHom the Carpenter—into the next life.

Then his lower arms scoop more sand. urSu opens his eyes and looks down at the many, many colours. UrYa would have appreciated the different varieties. The different perspectives. He had died so young and before his promise. And yet: he had shown him so much. UrSu speaks again in the flowing language of their kind. He wanted to call urYa the Philosopher, but as he speaks, he says something else.

“Here passes urYa, youngest of our brethren,” urSu says, a tear rolling down his cheek, “urYa … the Dreamer.”

The Master takes the sand to his upper hands and blows it gently into the sky: returning to Thra and to everything.

Lucky 1s

Every year, at every Game Con, there is this one guy.

He usually stands outside in the hallways, but sometimes you find him sitting by himself in the designer panels lost in his own funk. But more often than not, he sits off to the side of the gaming tables and listens to dice clattering, pencils etching on paper and the voices of Dungeon Masters at work and players at play.

He isn’t a cosplayer, but he doesn’t bother them either. For the most part, he looks pretty unremarkable: just a stubbly-chinned man in black jeans and a dark blue hoodie. But there are three things that stand out about him.

The first is that he doesn’t play in any of the games. Ever. You have to understand, I’ve seen him here three days in a row and Game Con is expensive. The three-day pass does not come cheap. But I’ve seen it on his neck, though some reason I can never make out the name on it. Instead of playing, he always watches the players from a distance. And it is always the players too. He doesn’t creep on the girls dressed in anime costumes or as D&D barbarian women. In fact, he doesn’t even seem to register them. Instead, he just watches the players — both male and female — at play.

I never get that creeper vibe from him, but sometimes when there’s laughter I see his hand clench around the one object he always carries with him.

But I’ve noticed something else. Whenever he does come close to a gaming table — and it’s really the most freaking weirdest thing — the players begin to move away from him. I don’t mean that they shift away uncomfortably or pretend he doesn’t exist as most ostracism works. No: I’m talking about people going off somewhere else to another table, or booth, or right out of the Convention Centre.

I didn’t notice this at first, but for some reason this guy would just not stay in the background for me. But the gamers that left when he came close didn’t even so much as look at him: at all.

I said there were three strange things about this guy, right? Well, I should probably be more specific about the last two, and I will be when I tell you a little more about who he is. One day, I asked some of my buddies about this guy.

“Oh shit man, that’s Lucky 1s.”

“The Fumbler.”

“The Die himself.”

Most of that didn’t tell me anything at first, but I caught on to the “Fumbler” title. They told me more, but it was less. Apparently, “Lucky 1s” was a gamer — a table-top role-player — who had the worst luck with dice-rolling ever. No one seemed to know or remember his real name but apparently, according to Con lore, he always rolled 1s on his dice. It didn’t matter what die he used or what game he played with dice.

He always got 1s.

Word was that he was bad luck. Some said he broke up with his girlfriend before an important quest and it had tainted his luck score. Others thought he attempted to melt and manipulate the ultimate die as some cheaters do and it went horrifically wrong: angering the dice gods forever. Some quietly insisted that he had insulted Wil Wheaton when the man had attempted to bless his dice; while others believed — really truly believed — that he just masturbated too much.

So — in other words — aside from the fact that no one clearly shook hands with the man (and they were clearly ones to talk), most of their claims were superstitious bullshit, and a sad kind of D&D superstitious bullshit to boot: which is of the lowest kind.

But none of them ever went near him: ever. They told me they were “afraid” that his bad luck would taint their luck too and there were … stories … vague, menacing stories.

I think I felt bad for him. I mean, many of us are geeks and we should all know better. Ostracizing someone and spreading rumours about them is bullshit: no matter how bad their luck is. That day, he was sitting in the corner of the gaming room at his own table. I was very aware now of the object in his hand: the one that he always carried.

It was, and it is, this cherry red twenty-sided die. He was rolling it on the table. It sounded like clattering bones. At the time there was a game not far from his table and I could hear the beginnings of an argument: mainly what I thought was bickering over rules or some over-enthusiastic debate about combat resolution. You know: just usual disputes.

I sat down with him. His hoodie obscured most of his face — except for his scruffy chin — and completely blocked out his eyes with shadow. I introduced myself. He said nothing. He just kept rolling that one die of his. I saw his three-day pass hung around his neck and I finally got a glimpse at the messy handwriting on it that I couldn’t make out even. I told him what panels and games I’d come for and asked him what he was here for.

Gradually, he started talking. Sometimes I couldn’t make out his words over the sounds of groaning and yelling from the nearby gamer table. We, naturally, started talking about gaming.

“I always loved Dungeons and Dragons,” he said in a soft, soft voice.

“Loved?” I asked, puzzled at the emphasis on the past-tense.

He inclined his head a bit and kept rolling his die, though I didn’t see the number it landed on then, “Yes well … I liked the role-playing element more than most. I found the numbers, the positioning of the figurines and the math to be freaking tedious at times. No offence.”

“None taken,” I told him, “the rules get updated all the time, but they do structure it out and make it interesting.”

“True,” he said after another bone-rattling dice-roll pause, something that looked like a purely mechanical act more than a nervous tic, “But I really loved getting into character: acting it out and immersing myself into the world. I loved problem-solving through role-playing the character out,” he smiled then and it was almost a happy smile, “Yeah. I was one of those kinds of players.”

“Hey, liking Batman doesn’t make your dick bigger,” I said, “though really it’s beautiful women that do it for me.”

He actually chuckled a bit at that, “Yeah. Elitism sucks … especially when you are the only one.”

I didn’t quite know what he meant by that, but it was enough for me to sense that there was a talk coming. For one, he stopped rolling his die. From my own DMing experience I knew this was the time to be quiet and listen.

“You know, some of them think I actually traded all my good rolls to Lord Orkus: to make my dick bigger or some shit like that,” the other looked down at himself, “If that was the case, maybe I should have prayed to the Dragon god Bahamut instead.

“It just … started one day. I don’t even remember when. I can tell you, though, what it feels like.

“You know when you’re going to have a good roll or a bad one. I think every gambler and role-player knows it on some very intrinsic level,” he rolled his die and this time I saw it land on a big, fat, white 1, “When it’s a good roll, or one with great possibility it sings and surges through your blood. There’s hope. There’s excitement. There’s fun,” he rolls the die again and it lands on the same number, “But when you have a bad roll, it feels flat. Your stomach sinks when you cast that die, and you know even before it lands what it’s going to be: if you’re honest with yourself. Dread makes it even more sour and you don’t even want to look at it. It is just that bad.”

He rolled it again, “Every one of us knows what kind of roll we’re going to get. We just lie to ourselves and say it’s purely up to chance. I’m not even sure if the die affects our luck, or if it’s our own spirit — our self-confidence and personal energy — that affects the die.”

The die landed on another 1 as he continued talking, “My friends heckled me. They said I was cursed. ‘You’re cursed, Lucky 1s,’ they told me, ‘you’re cursed …'” he shook his head, “No matter what I rolled, it’s always been the same. I role-played as best I could, but the dice always betrayed me,” I could feel him glaring down at that 1 with a very palpable sense of hatred, “Eventually, I kept being the one to screw up our group quests and they stopped inviting me to games.”

“I’m sorry,” I told him, and meant it, “That was a shitty thing to do.”

“My attitude was getting worse, to be fair,” he rolled the die, making it clatter dangerously near the table’s edge, “I kept this die: where it all started from. I thought I might as well at least be honest about that with myself. I was so … angry, you know? They blamed me for my bad rolls. Blamed me like I was somehow responsible for them. Like I wanted them on some level. It was bullshit.

“Sometimes I think they did it to me. There’s energy in group games–good and bad–and after a while I started to believe it. I started to embody it.”

“Those are a lot of 1s,” I admitted, with a little ripple of goosebumps forming across my arms, “Maybe you have five dots in Entropy.”

“Dots?”

Mage: The Ascension,” I told him, “Well, that’s how stats work in White Wolf’s Old World of Darkness campaigns. In Ascension, the Euthanatos are mages that deal in death and luck: in matter breaking down and continuously changing. Entropy. Somehow, I think you might like that game.”

“Heh. It does sound cool. It would be nice to play again and not suck,” between the sharper sounds of him rolling the die hard against the table and the growing clamour of the other table, it was getting harder to hear him, “You know, some people get Natural 20s on their rolls. All the time. But I get 1s. I get freaking,” he rolled the die, “goddamned,” he rolled the die again, “1s!

Suddenly, he just whipped that die onto the ground beside us. I looked down and, yeah, it was very creepy. Even on the floor, it landed on a 1. I was almost tempted to mention that he needed some Felix Felicis, but that was definitely not the time for a Harry Potter joke.

We were both quiet for a while. His shoulders were slouching. To be honest, he looked miserable and lonely: the kind of person that wished they would be eaten by a Grue.

I don’t know why I did it. I reached down and picked up his die. The noise from the other table was getting very rowdy. Some of the players were leaving. I slid the die over to his hands on the table. And, to this day, I really don’t know why I asked him this one question: but I did.

“Have you ever gotten Natural 20s?”

It was a dumb question after everything that I had observed today. But instead of walking away, or shouting at me, or smirking, he looked down at the red die and said, “Only in a group. And only when I get angry.”

He picked up the die and whipped it on the table with a hard crack. I was almost surprised the Game Con Volunteers and security guards didn’t hear it, but the sounds from the other table probably drowned it out. He did it again. And again. And again. It was like a gunshot each time.

20.

20.

20.

Critical hit.

Critical hit.

Critical hit.

Finally, the whole other table close to us dispersed and I could hear some of the departing conversation, “All bad rolls.”

“And 1s. So many fucking 1s …”

He looked up at me then and I could finally see his eyes. They were dark and sad.

“That is the real reason why no one will play with me. Ever.

“You know, some people just get Natural 20s with a kind of cockiness or an easy grace. I wish I had been one of them. But if ‘should-ofs’ were treasure, we’d all have a lot of fat loots.”

He got up then and handed his die back to me, “I think I’ve finally rolled all the 1s out of this fucker. Maybe a few of the 20s too. There are some solid numbers left though. Good numbers. Not too lucky, but not a fumbler. Damn, I hate being called that … almost as much as Lucky 1s … Anyway, thanks for listening.”

“Hey,” I said before he could leave, “you should really check into LARPing. There’s a Mage game here at the Con. I think you’d like it.”

His back was facing me at this point, but I thought I saw him nod. Then, he vanished into a crowd of oncoming players.

I still see him around, you know, that guy they still call “Lucky 1s.” He doesn’t just stand around as much anymore, I’m glad to say. Evidently he found that Live-Action Mage game I told him about: where he plays as a Euthanatos that feeds on the bad luck of others. He doesn’t wear his hoodie now and he smiles a lot more.

I still have his 20-sided die and I have to say that — to this day — I’ve never failed a roll.

In Which Even My Budgie Thought I Was Crazy

My pet budgie had been sick for a really long time: for about a year or so.

She became this little blue cloud sitting in the highest vantage point of her cage: between her mirror and one of her toys. It got to the point where the only time she would chirp would be when she climbed down–still possessed of her surprising agility–and either attacked her cuttlebone or ate from her seed cup.

Even when she was well, she barely ever talked to herself and when she did, it was this quiet, faint little chirp or two. Later on, she would be quietly and excitedly chirping to herself when we covered her cage for the night. She slept so much during the day that she became a nocturnal bird of sorts and she would always “go to sleep” whenever we left her for the night.

Personally, I don’t think she liked me very much. She would sit on my finger but then eventually lean away from me and go back onto her perch. I could never find the right whistle to match her chirping pitch and I suspect she squawked because she hated it when I clapped. It also probably didn’t help that I would threaten to eat her every day like I was some kind of Dread Pirate Roberts with budgie on the menu: with the caveat of “not today.”

That, and I liked to point at her and growl, “You.”

She got used to that after a while: so much so she started to ignore me as most sane sentient pieces of fluff tend to after a while. In fact, our whole owner and pet relationship was pretty much me asking my family how she was doing, occasionally putting her on my finger–which she would entertain the notion for a while–and feeding her her millet when she got too lazy and learned that she could get humans to do more things for her, and later when she got too exhausted and anemic to get for herself.  When she was well, I enjoyed getting her to stretch out her neck and reach for the millet that I would move gradually away from her. Sometimes she would peck at my finger when she realized it was in the way of her food: even though it was the very thing keeping it there for her convenience.

I never said she was smart: in that way anyway.

Towards the end, which had been coming for over a year–because she was too stubborn in general–she vomited up probably about as much as she ate. She was thin and cold underneath her blue puffiness. The heating pad stayed on her cage all the time and only got shut off when it was time for her to sleep or we had to leave the house: because we didn’t want her to get accidentally cooked or incinerated. When she threw up, it was more of an annoyance to her than anything else: just something she had to get out of her way before she could do her birdy things.

For all I sometimes deluded myself into thinking that she was groggy like a drunk in her fluff and hungover enough to just say “leave me alone” to the rest of the world, she really was sick. Even so, whenever she moved she would preen herself and chirp quietly: letting us know that she was still here. She was still here.

The day before Saturday, she sat on my finger. She was exhausted and we stared at each other a bit. Eventually, I just put her back on her perch and left her alone. She ate, she cleaned herself, she talked and sat on my brother’s finger and slept. That bird always loved my brother: she’d kiss his finger and his lips and warble at him in an attempt at communication. She seemed no different and no worse than any other time.

I was in bed when I heard that they found her at her seed cup. She was gone at that point. Unlike our other birds, she wasn’t on the floor gasping or squeaking in pain from cancer or whatever ultimate complications happen when you inbreed budgies for prettiness in cages. She never seemed to be in pain: at least, I hope she never was. She just got tired and tired and, one day, on Saturday, she just stopped.

But more than that, she died pretty much the way she lived: eating.

For all of her simplicity, she knew there was something wrong with her and she just kept going until she couldn’t anymore. There was no complex thought or visible fear: it just was. That night, mostly avoiding the living room and that empty space near the wall where her cage was–as though she were just on vacation or upstairs in my parents’ room as they did some oven-cleaning–I still swear I thought I heard some of the small, quiet chirps that she made at night.

There is one other fact about all of this. When I talk about that wall, I have to mention that this is where all our birds were placed when we moved into this house. In our old house, they used to sit right next to the TV or a window. Essentially, the bird would sit in the corner of this room and watch us from a distance whenever we didn’t visit her. She also rarely ever came out. Some budgies fly around all the time. But not this one. Most of the times she would come out, it would be disastrous. She could fly, but her landing skills sucked. After a while, we didn’t let her come out for fear of her killing herself and  eventually she didn’t even try.

And sometimes I wondered. I wondered what it would be like to have no contact with anyone of your own kind, placed in a cage you never came out of–that became your home–in corner of the room where you had to make yourself heard all the time. I sometimes wondered if her sickness was just physical.

I also realized that, looking at myself, I didn’t have to wonder that much. Over the years, we had a lot in common. Both of us probably felt confined and bothered by people. Sometimes neither of us wanted to wake up and eventually night time became a blessing for us: because no one would bother us and we could do our own thing. We were also both lonely: I’m pretty sure. And we both sat in our cages for so long they became our mostly comfortable homes and we forgot at times that we could fly.

When my second budgie Carni died, I felt a disconnect with the birds that came after him. That affection and tactility was gone or more distant. I felt like I couldn’t get close to any pet like that again, and even though I played with the other two, it wasn’t the same. By the time we got this one, I was in the process of working and eventually moving out. I visited from time to time these past three or so years but I guess it just wasn’t the same for her.

I’m not sure if we are going to get another budgie. They have played a long role in my life. They were the first pet I never had as a child: as my Dad is allergic to everything else. I even made a primitive childhood mythos or a chant for them: ranging from addressing human with “The budgie will eat the world” and “They’re coming for us all!” to the budgie “You will be devoured, it is your destiny!” or even some weird tautologies like “The Budgie’s name is Budgie.” It’s going to take some getting used to not doing that anymore. In retrospect, it’s much the same way some writers will start rhyming all the time just to get into a creative or hyper-mindset. Sometimes I’ve joked that I had “budgie turrets”: if only because I liked to say the word “budgie” so many times. It is such a silly, ridiculous word for a bird with a dotted happy face below their beak: as though they are happy all the time.

Budgies are also very good imitators when they want to be.

It gets to the point where you wonder whether you trained them to be crazy, or if they trained you to be more like them. All of this must sound very weird, I’m sure. I mean, it’s just a bird right? I also never said I didn’t have some issues. But I just want to say that if I ever get another bird again, somehow I will show them that it is okay to fly. I’ll play with them as much as I can and spend more time with them. Or something. Or I will get out of my own cage a lot more often.

I don’t know. Right now, after burying myself in work, all I know is that I will never get the chance to point at Squawkes again and simply accept my craziness for whatever it is. May she be in the largest cage there is: made from the cuttlebones of the sky.

Anonymous

I think I was the only person who was so happy to see her. And I was so happy. So eager.

I was tired, you see. But I wasn’t tired from a life of too much work. I was a writer: a story-maker. Every time I got the chance, I’d sit down in the early morning or late at night and write about the things that mattered to me. I admit, most of the stories I wrote were purely for my own self-gratification: because they were stories I wanted to read and I was the only one who could write them the way I saw them. I’ll also admit that many of them were very personal stories or based on my own experiences.

And–more often than not–the main protagonist was always me.

But whenever I finished what I did, letting the gross black weight drain from the interior of my skull onto paper and screen, I knew I couldn’t go any farther than that. It wasn’t the blank page that stopped me, or the scribbled out words, or even the spectre of a deadline. It was never even the pressure to live up to the shoulders I barely tottered on. I told her, in the end, that my fear was the rejection of the work that is myself.

And so I stopped.

I crawled away from the meta-fictional eyes of the audience. I showed my work to fewer and fewer people and of these people, some of them even turned on me: taking offence to something I could deny no more than my own name.

I was guilty of a very thin skin, and if writers are liars then failed writers are cowards.

Then, after I got a good, real, and sensible job the stories finally died. But the thin skin stretched too far over the moment I crept away from and the ghosts of ideas screamed silently behind my eyes: unrequited and hungry.

So when she came, I was relieved. I was so relieved to finally make the pain stop. I hated myself. I asked her for oblivion. She said no, of course, but this should not have surprised me. I know that she knows that there is somewhere for everyone. I took her pale hand. It was surprisingly warm. She told me there was someone I needed to meet.

I found myself in a great and familiar hall. She was gone and at first I thought I was alone in this great ornate emptiness.

Then, I saw him.

It was horrible. I found myself shaking on the floor in shame. He asked me — if “asking” was the right verb to describe any words that came from his mouth — what I wanted of him. I knew who he was. I wished for death and realized the irony of my thoughts. I asked again for oblivion.

He looked down at me with those terrible, beautifully infinite dark eyes and told me not to lie to him again. People who pass through the Gate of Horn are not allowed to tell lies, he told me.

I remember opening my mouth to speak again when suddenly images, symbols and ideas themselves seemed to burst out from the back of my mind instead. I didn’t understand their language — which was more song than words — yet at the same time I did. He looked at me for a long time. He told me that I was a vessel of the stories and that I had denied them. There was no forgiveness in his tone, but neither was it an angry one. The sheer disappointment in his glittering eye was worse than any fury he was capable of.

Underneath that gaze, I wanted to die again forever.

But he refused me. It was not his place, he said. However, even though my potential in the conscious world was over, my words — if that is what they are in dreams — expressed my wish: my real wish. He compelled me to follow his eyes to … a large series of bookcases ascending into the sky.

I am allowed to stay here indefinitely. Sometimes, I read the books from those shelves. An older thin man with a long nose and spectacles occasionally keeps me company. But most of the time, I am at a desk: writing on thin dream-paper with the black of a raven’s wing. When I’m done, the crane-like man takes my finished papers and stacks them into books that he puts on the shelves: though sometimes he will take the time to make a fine point of correcting my grammar.

Occasionally, he will stop in, look at my “progress,” listen to the ideas singing themselves into the paper, then nod to himself and leave. Sometimes, she comes back and tells me that everything I make is beautiful. I know she has nothing but good things to say about anyone, but coming from her those words are no less special.

Then, sometimes in my room, another woman with golden hair comes to hold me at night and I cry into her arms. Aside from the one who brought me here, she understands me and forgives me the most.

But mostly, I write my stories for a library that doesn’t exist with its shelves sometimes floating in the sky and always filled with imaginary books. It reminds me so much of what I did when I was alive. Sometimes dreamers find their way here and read my books, only to disappear and forget all about them again.

None of them know my name and I continue to write my stories in books of air: happily.

Be Brave, Be Heard

So I don’t generally do re-posts of other Blog articles, but this was is an exception. In fact, I wasn’t going to do anything else and just let Pollychromatic, and the image presented, speak for themselves. But not only have I been informed that there are some opinions of mine that need to be written down, but I also feel compelled to do so anyway.

Now first, I hope you read the above article. Secondly, I actually know Lady Katza personally–the person who took this picture of her daughter and made her costume at the time–and I have seen this awesome image before. In fact, not only have I seen this picture before, but Lady K herself asked me if I could make a story based off of it.

I’m not going to do that today, however, but there is something about the image that I do want to write about. This post, which was created by Lady K’s friend and sewing ally Pollychromatic, has been reposted and linked to a few other places. A few responses to this article were something along the lines of it being impossible for someone to maintain their childhood–their innocence–after protecting themselves from harm: that it should not be the imperative of a child to defend themselves, but rather it should be the responsibility of an adult instead.

And while there are some merits in these thoughts, I believe that they ultimately miss the point. There are two ways of looking at this issue.

The first is the literal perspective: the one which some of these responses attempt to address. If we look at this picture realistically, violence and surviving violence does neither maturity nor adulthood make. That, in my opinion, is a fallacy. Someone who kills or commits violence at a young age–even in self-defence–will have psychological trauma. They would need counselling and lots of guidance and understanding to process what they had done, and what happened to them. One response mentioned war as well as violence as making children grow-up far too quickly: and my opinion on the matter is that child soldiers are not a good basis to make a stable adult from, nor does violence function as a crucible that forges a “stronger” person. Instead, whether that violence is physical or semi-conscious in a culture, it can traumatize and create an individual with major emotional issues: people that, as I mentioned before, will need family and social structures to somehow help them cope … these same factors that should also be called on to change those aspects of a society or culture of violence.

So yes, when taken literally that image of the girl with an axe in one hand and a wolf’s head in another is not a thing that can solve societal and cultural violence.

However, there is the other perspective: the metaphorical one. The image that Lady K creates and Pollychromatic describes is an iconoclast: specifically a picture or an idea that takes preconceived notions and subverts them to make a statement. Both women are trying to say something with the language of archetypes.

They are taking an ancient cautionary folktale in the form of Little Red Riding Hood which, in turn, takes the archetype or the stereotype of the little girl as inherently innocent, pure and chaste–who is easily exploitable and is the victim that must always be cautious or guarded from harm–and they are changing it. Because I can tell you right now, that the image of this Red Riding Hood does not only represent little girls. It represents women of all ages and backgrounds. Whether that is completely successful or not, I will leave it up to others to decide and debate, but when I look at it in that context I see a representation–not the representation of course because there is never only one–of women and what they should do in the world of inherent violence and exploitation.

Now take the axe. The axe can be seen as an implement of death, but it is also a tool to help people survive: to cut wood and other substances for fire and food. Learning to use a tool is a form of knowledge and experience. When you place that in the hand of a symbol that is meant to represent a form of neoteny–both an essentialized symbol and an idea that women are eternal and infantile children that need to be minded and to fear–you begin to change that symbol through that addition alone. In Little Riding Hood, the axe also belongs to the woodsman whom–in at least some variations of the tale–ends up killing the predatory wolf. Perhaps he or someone else of either gender has taught her how to chop wood and use a tool to defend herself should she need it.

And now we come to the wolf’s head and the blood. For me, they represent–respectively–fear and the world. The wolf is not just violence, but the fear of violence. The girl, here, has decapitated her fear. But notice how she holds that wolf’s head. She isn’t holding it up like a trophy, or as something to be dominated, or even as a vanquished foe. Rather, she holds it as something more akin to a stuffed animal or a teddy bear. It’s almost like in addition to being fear the wolf is also her sense of violence and perhaps something more one day. She inherently accepts it as a part of herself and, while she has eliminated its power over her, she still utilizes its essence in a totemic way. It is her natural violence. It is a fallacy to question whether or not a cat hunting a mouse or a bird still has their innocence: in that they are just following their nature. I’d also argue that the essence of human nature is to preserve itself: an urge that can be honed into a conscious instinct for self-defence.

As for the blood, it would be really easy to equate it to upcoming puberty or a crimson baptism heralding premature adulthood, but the fallacy is equating adulthood with maturity and the idea that maturity and innocence are mutually exclusive forces: especially since we do not have a working definition of what innocence is beyond an idea of sexuality or age.

I see the blood as a consequence of being in the world. The natural world of the woods and beyond them is a messy, organic place. This is something that children, and hence adults, learn very early in their existences. If you are going to live in the world, prepare to be dirty and to also know that each cause has an effect.

This archetype that has been depicted here is no new idea. It has probably had many names in the past, but TV Tropes has its own heading under the term Little Miss Badass. You can find them in all media: as Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and even Lettie Hempstock in his new novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane. But I want to get beyond this a bit and look at what is meant by self-defence. The fact is, I hinted earlier that violence is not merely a physical act, but also a systematic one: one that uses a societal or cultural threat or fear of violence to define a victim and make them hide … make them silent. However, self-defence need not only be physical as well. It can be arming someone with the tools to not only recognize overt and subtle dangers, but also to speak, to protest, and to challenge what are generally long-held and unquestioned assumptions.

So now consider this image in the political dimension that Pollychromatic brings up. If you interpret this image as being an archetype–again not the archetype–for all women, then the message seems to be clear: that women should defend themselves against forces that threaten them and that the first form of defence is knowledge of what needs to be defended against and how to properly respond to that danger.

And then you can look at the image with regards to children: to actual children. If you interpret this image as teaching children how to recognize the inherent dangers of the world around them, as well as working with the benefits of that world and focus more on them interacting with the world as it is, then perhaps you can slowly change that world from the ground up: by simply having those children, and the adults that they will subsequently become, actually exist.

Ultimately, I will say this. Pollychromatic’s version of Lady K’s photograph as a potential political symbol for change does need some work. Personally, I think it would look awesome in the form of FV Disco that was utilized by Nick Marinkovich as the illustrator of Kenk: with its collage-like quality, sharp white angular outlines, and rhetorical art quality that would still keep the essence of the image as it is. What I see when I look at this image is a timeless figure, an innocence that protects itself and its own: a force that teaches you that innocence still exists with a bit more canniness and wisdom and, more importantly, it makes you seriously look at what forces define innocence in a created world.

That is what I got out of what Pollychromatic and Lady K try to say about their article and picture respectively.

pollychromatic

Something sort of weird happened on the way to sharing a picture for the #WeStandWithWendy campaign.

A couple years ago my friend Lady Katza from Peanut Butter Macramé took a picture of her daughter. She had made a gorgeous Little Red Riding Hood costume for her daughter, and completed the costume with a bloodied axe and a wolf’s head.

Her daughter was 8 in the picture; unmistakably prepubescent. There was little question of context for herself, her husband, or for me. In this storytelling, Red had saved herself with a Huntsman’s axe. She did not need saving. The girl in the picture was wide eyed, with her innocence still visibly intact. She did not look menaced or menacing. She looked determined, and young. It was, ultimately, a picture of female innocence that was capable, and not the least bit helpless.

It was the kind of story-in-a-picture that upends paradigms, in…

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This is Not a Less Impressive Daffodil: Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I thought I was going to just make that small post about how most–if not all–of Neil Gaiman’s stories could be construed as being part of a multiverse of his own creation. I thought I could leave it at that and not talk about The Ocean At the End of the Lane in and of itself. Certainly, that would have been easier. For a 181-page novel, Ocean is intimidating and in a lot of ways really hard to describe.

In fact, the reason why Ocean is so hard to deal with, at least from my perspective, is that its writing is seemingly so sparse, but there is so much packed into those charged sentences. In terms of structure, the narrative and writing style reminds me of Gwendolyn MacEwen’s Julian The Magician in all the different ideas that have compacted into almost poetic sentences. At the same time the resonances, metaphors and allusions to other events through imagery and small stories is reminiscent–to me again–of a more “spread-out” George R.R. Martin: in that there is a very intricate storytelling structure that incorporates physical, visual, visceral and emotion description well. I even know that if and when I read this novel again there will be more hints and foreshadowing’s and authorial winks that will meet me along the way to the end of the lane.

All of the above are the technical elements that stand out at me with regards to the writing style of the book. And I haven’t even gotten to where this can fit in with regards to Neil’s own mythic “storyscape.” Amanda Palmer goes into this far better than I can–even better–she provides no spoilers to the book whatsoever. I will however say that one very striking part of her Blog review on Ocean is that apparently this story is the closer to autobiography or semi-autobiography than a lot of Neil’s other words or, as Amanda put it, “Neil dialed down the usual setting of his blender” so that you can see a much clearer distinction between “the reality that we experience” and “the art we create.”

Of course, this is not the first time he has done this. Violent Cases and The Tragical Comedy or the Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch are works that definitely come to mind with regards to where the writer’s experiences and what the writer creates can be observed to some extent as that “twilight place where the man and the writer smash into each other and for a second there’s a wrinkle, a schism, where you can jam a stick into the works of the blender and see the whole, floating components of a soul” but I will say that this is probably the first time that Neil has ever written a prose novel along these lines.

I also can’t help but wonder if somehow Neil was somehow, in some stylistic or personal way, inspired or influenced in some part by C. Anthony Martignetti’s Lunatic Heroes: Memories, Lies and Reflections: a collection of short stories that Neil read, wrote praise for and even–as “an American God” sent an editor to look at. You can find my review of Anthony’s book here. Certainly, there is a nice resonance between the first-person mostly-child narrative of Anthony’s stories and the unnamed mostly-child protagonist in Ocean: both of which were narrated by adults.

And now, my friends, this where I place my obligatory disclaimer: for in this Ocean there be Spoilers. If you plan to read this book, turn back now. It is a really good book, so please read it. If not, or if you’ve read it continue walking down this lane … if you dare.

If I had to sum this story all up in one sentence, I would say that The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a story about childhood fear and wonder for grown-ups. I’m not talking about Coraline or any of Neil’s other children’s stories that are made for children but can be read by adults or even the film MirrorMask with its own child protagonist putting herself into danger. No, the danger inherent in the situation of the unnamed protagonist is one of a very painful real powerlessness in the face of an unfathomable adult–and also fantastic–reality. The protagonist discovers a lot of hard truths at his age of seven even before the magical element comes into play: which, in turn, is triggered by one of those harsh adult and alien truths in a really terrible way.

The protagonist already starts off as a child that can barely tolerate his reality without books and is alternatively lonely and does not care much for people in general. He actually describes it as mostly unhappy, though he does admit that he had moments of contentedness. He is not a child like Coraline who can trick her way out of situations, or Bod with his canniness and supernatural influence: and he is made very painfully aware of how weak and small he is compared to an adult. That is not to say, in retrospect, that he doesn’t his own intelligence or craftiness: after all, not only did he learn basic survival skills–if only out of necessity–but he has books as his oldest companions and books can teach you things if you let them.

But even his resources and the high level of child intuition that he possesses, the protagonist cannot solve all of his problems by himself: which is something that the narrative makes quite clear. Even the books he reads, each one about children overcoming adversity, or an evil adult is offset by his reality of actual helplessness: as if Neil is trying to hit home–the home and childhood the protagonist realizes he is losing–that this is not that kind of story. The protagonist can be a cowardly child, a thoughtful child, a brave child but he is still just a child.

And children need help when they find themselves in a bad situation: domestic or otherwise.

The Hempstocks are a family of three women that live at the end of the lane. The youngest is Lettie, her mother is called Ginnie and the grandmother is, well, Old Mrs. Hempstock. Lettie Hempstock, with her red hair and snub nose, is a seemingly eleven year old girl reminiscent of a Pippi Longstocking with magical strength and “just-so” knowledge. Of course, these three women are not what they seem and yet, at the same time, they are. This pattern of three women of power comes up a lot in Neil’s works: from the Lilim in Stardust, to the Kindly Ones in Sandman and even the immigrant Slavic goddesses in American Gods. I’d also be remiss if I forgot to make mention of the Norns or the Fates from mythology as well.

In this case, though, the three are here to help the protagonist: at least whenever he finds his way to them. The Hempstocks themselves seem to have come from another dimension countless millennia ago, from the Ocean pond next to their farm and in at least one form they are pure energy. These three are pure Hempstocks and apparently there are other female Hempstocks throughout the world created by the wandering male Hempstocks: who aren’t as powerful, but are just as special in their own ways. The fact that there is a Hempstock in Stardust and The Graveyard Book may well be coincidences.

What is also interesting is that the pure Hempstock females do not have fathers. Perhaps they are born from the multiverse or perhaps not. The original male Hempstocks may be the same and I wonder if there is one as old as Old Mrs. Hempstock out there somewhere. It is not known if male Hempstocks can make other male ones in the same as they do female ones. So basically, while these male Hempstocks wander and play Zeus across the world and nowhere in this narrative whatsoever, we are left with these three who are a child, an adult woman, and an old woman: and yet so much more.

And then we have the antagonists. Skarthach of the Keep is a flea. She isn’t a flea in the conventional sense, but rather an ancient creature in the multiverse of the Ocean that is awakened by the badness that happens in this world and seeks to rule it by providing what people want and feeding off of the sensations they get from it. She is massive, powerful and old. So you might think to yourself that what we have here is a classical Lovecraftian entity or even an Other Mother that will manipulate the protagonist and Lettie as they come into her acquired dimension. Well, if you did think this, I’m afraid you thought wrong.

What Skarthach does–after becoming a humanoid named Ursula Monkton–is worse. She physically infiltrates the protagonist as a worm–which in and of itself has some very unsettling overtones–and after he takes her out, she changes into a human that becomes his babysitter. Out of perhaps some pettiness for Lettie attempting to seal her away in her own dimension or simply wanting to keep the protagonist “safe”–because she placed a gateway back into her dimension within him after being in his body–she begins to control his life. She infects his family with her “food” and makes them love her: his married father in particular. But before and after that, Ursula limits his physical freedom–essentially taking it away–and threatens to take away his books while enforcing “early bedtimes.”

And all of this is before she gets his father–who has some aggression issues of his own–to attempt to drown him. She is literally the stereotype of every wicked stepmother–or surrogate mother as she takes over the family–rolled up into pettiness, spite and pure evil. She is an epitome of insidious adult bullying and abuse. Neil did such a good job on illustrating all of this that I’ve even stated that Ursula Monkton is the first of his antagonists that I have ever truly despised and I took great joy in watching her pretend a fearless she didn’t have and then cry like a little baby smeared in mud– just as she had done to the protagonist before (it’s not so grand when it happens to you, huh Ursula?)–as her very painful doom came to her.

But it is slightly before that when you begin to understand something. Apparently, fleas had come to reality before and they were almost always accompanied by things that Old Mrs. Hempstock called varmints. I originally thought that they were just infected humans or offspring that the fleas made when they colonized worlds. But I fall victim to expectations as well and I realized after a while that I was wrong. Fleas are deathly afraid of varmints: and anything else with half a soul would be too. The reason for this is because they are cleaners: they eat fleas and everything associated with them. And apparently a lot of them dwell in Earth’s universe because there are no native fleas there. I pictured them like the mounts that the Nazgul in Return of the King rode, but I know they are even worse than that and only barely have passing resemblances. All I know is that when they ate one constellation out of existence, it reminded me of various terrible events from Dr. Who.

I think what I really related in the end is that the protagonist, even after the removal of the worm and the path to her portal still has the gateway to other dimensions inside of him. It is described as this piece of ice in his heart. Later you discover that when he is older, he makes art and even though the Hempstocks observe that he is “growing a new heart,” even though he may have died in one version of reality from the varmints hunting every last bit and trace of the flea,  I wonder if that shard is really gone. It was a nice allusion to what a writer can actually be.

Other things that I really liked in Ocean was the metaphoric and literal quality of the ocean itself and how, through simple language and the perspective of a child, Neil manages to show the wrongness in the death and supposed replacement of a loved one: as if somehow substituting one cat for another that you killed can ever replace the being you loved, or if another thoughtlessly intentional violation somehow makes the previous accidental one better. It is that last image that really sets the tone for the protagonist’s story really: at least to me.

I am nearing the end of this strange review now. I just want to leave off with some quotes that really caught my eye: both in their meanings and undertones and just for the simple elegance of their craftsmanship.

“I was far away in ancient Egypt, learning about Hathor, and how she had stalked Egypt in the form of a lioness, and she had killed so many people the sands turned red, and how they had only defeated her by mixing beer and honey and sleeping draughts and dying this concoction red, so she thought it was blood, and she drank it and fell asleep.  Ra, the father of the gods, made her the goddess of love after that, so the wounds she had inflicted on people would now only be wounds of the heart. I wondered why the gods had done that. Why hadn’t they just killed her, when they had the chance?” (53)

It is a very good question, I might add, although it might be answered by the shard of ice in the protagonist’s heart and the art it possibly inspires him to make: as some consolation anyway.

“I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were (53)

“Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometimes monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren’t” (112).

“I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world … Except for Granny, of course” (112).

“In those dreams I spoke that language too, the first language, and I had dominion over the nature of all that was real. In my dream, it was the tongue of what is, and anything spoken in it becomes real, because nothing said in that language can be a lie. It is the most basic building brick of everything. In my dreams I have used that language to heal the sick and to fly; once I dreamed I kept a perfect little bed-and-breakfast by the seaside, and to everyone who came to stay with me I would say, in that tongue, “Be whole,” and they would become whole, not be broken people, not any longer, because I had spoken the language of shaping” (43).

This particular quote has a flow to it and a glowing golden aura–like reading some precursor to ancient Greek–and yet flows so well and with such a seeming effortlessness like breathing that it makes me want to cry. This was by far my favourite quote in the entire book for that reason alone.

And then there is this one:

“My book of Greek myths had told me that the narcissi were named after a beautiful young man, so lovely that he had fallen in love with himself. He saw his reflection in a pool of water, and would not leave it, and, eventually, he died, so that the gods were forced to transform him into a flower. In my mind, when I had read this, I had imagined that a narcissus must be the most beautiful flower in the world. I was disappointed when I learned that it was just a less impressive daffodil” (68).

I have to say that aside from the various nuances and connotations within these lines, this has to be one of the best, most subtle and utterly poetic insult ever. I can just imagine going around telling a person that annoys me that they are “just a less impressive daffodil.”

So, suffice to say, I am going to give The Ocean at the End of the Lane a 5/5. I know there is so much I did not discuss or make parallels to, but then I have to also remember that this is just one road to one place in Neil Gaiman’s multiverse. I think what really got to me, when all of this is said done, however, is the fact that this style of story–with the exception of a few descriptive details and elements–is something that I have been working on myself in my own writing and it was really interesting to see Neil making a story like this for himself and the rest of us. Perhaps we all dip into the same place: a place that can be a well, or a spring, or a stream of consciousness, or a pond … that is an eternal, bottomless, ocean.

Be Careful What You Search For: The Doctor as Psyche

Disclaimer: There be spoilers here.

I’m not going to go into an indepth analysis and look at a particular Doctor Who episode. The fact is: it is an exhausting process and I know I will be missing something from it when I’m done. But there is one theme that has really caught my eye and is really, aside from the weird and zany adventures with elements of grandiosity the central focus of The Doctor as of right now.

The mystery of Clara Oswin Oswald or, in The Doctor’s own words, “The only mystery worth solving.”

So there we are. The scenario is already set and clear: as much as any Doctor Who plot really is. And now I am going to make a mythological allusion: mainly talking about what this quest and its potential results actually reminds me of. It is only fitting that in the last episode of Doctor Who “Hide,” that The Doctor said something to the effect that, “It isn’t a ghost story after all — it’s a love story.” And when he said, I said under my breath, “Yes, Doctor. It really is.”

So is the Myth of Psyche and Eros. There are many variations of the myth itself, but essentially what happens is that there is a princess named Psyche who–through various circumstances–ends up married to the love god Eros (or Cupid as he is better known): though she does not know this. In fact, until her fateful decision, she never even sees what he looks like. Not really. One of the admonitions that Cupid gives her, in fact, is that she is not allowed to look at him.

Don’t blink.

Of course, as I and many others have stated with regards to “The Snowmen,” this myth too sounds an awful lot like a fairytale: and indeed a lot of myths and parables in various ages do. There is always that one thing the character is told not to do, or is made difficult to find and of course–human and sentient nature being what it is–the character eventually seeks it out. As something of an aside, I also think it is very remarkable in that Psyche’s myth may be one of the few in existence where a mortal woman has a recognized heroic quest–complete with various tasks–in pursuing a male deity as opposed to the other way around.

Now, Psyche and The Doctor are not that alike at all. There are different circumstances, goals, influences, character genders, and fears involved on the surface. Psyche is “sacrificed” to a “dragon that harasses the world” due to a vision that an oracle gave her royal father of whom she would marry. There are gods involved. Cupid likes Psyche as well: after being sent to punish her by his mother Venus (the Roman Aphrodite). Psyche is relatively inexperienced with regards to the world and marriage. She is innocent. And it is only when others ask her who her husband is and if he is attempting to deceive her by masking his “hideousness” that she attempts to look at and potentially kill him if she doesn’t like what she sees. So literally, Psyche and Cupid, and The Doctor and Clara are entirely different situations.

Figuratively though …

The Doctor from the very beginning knows that there is something very odd about Clara Oswin Oswald. She should not exist. She was made into Dalek in “Asylum of the Daleks” and then she died, and then she was a Victorian governess in “The Snowmen” and also died. He then realizes that she can potentially exist in another timeline as the same person and species. There seem to be forces that are getting him to find her after some of his own recent losses. He is both fascinated and afraid to find the truth of her. Perhaps when, in “Hide,” the psychic tells Clara that The Doctor has “a sliver of ice in his heart” she is really saying that there has been so much grief that he has a certain level of objectivity and dispassion as a result of that. Remember, in “The Snowmen,” it was a Christmas episode with the TARDIS in the clouds and The Doctor living there away from all people. Even the interior of the TARDIS looks like a cold metal form of ice.

That “sliver” could be fear, but it may be one of those forces that influences him to “figure Clara out,” while trying to maintain a distance. At the same time, The Doctor always loves to solve mysteries and this is one he cannot resist for a variety of reasons: not the least of which being that this “mystery” seems to like him back. A lot. And there are gods involved in the Whovian Universe–although they are known as different things like Eternals, and “sun parasite-gods”–and The Doctor, like Psyche, has had some adventures into the Underworld: not the least of which being his Regenerations and some of the other places he has found himself in.

Psyche had a lantern and a knife to take with her into the Underworld. The Doctor has his own tool.

I do hope though–probably in vain–that this loose comparison ends here. That when The Doctor finds and brings the metaphorical lantern to see Clara in the darkness that, well … it doesn’t end as badly for him as it almost did with Psyche. But knowing The Doctor’s track record and what the Universe likes to do to him: I am a bit concerned.

Because Clara could be a lot of things. She could be, as some fans have posited, The Dalek Emperor reformed by Rose as the incarnation of the Bad Wolf to be a companion for The Doctor as she predicted her importance and absence from his life in that brief time she absorbed The Heart of the TARDIS. She could be a Dalek or alien-made replicant. Maybe she is another aspect of The Great Intelligence. She could also be an avatar of the returning Eternals for all we know. She could also be Romana: the Time Lady that The Doctor once spent considerable time with. Or, when The Master was disintegrating towards his confrontation with the Time Lords, the resulting closure of the time-warp could have fractured and Regenerated him into a new form existing throughout time and space: and we know now that Time Lords can change sex and gender.

Or, much worse:

Clara Oswin Oswald could very just well be Clara Oswin Oswald in the way that she is–human–and existing in different time periods and places. And by dissecting her mystery, The Doctor could drive her away from him and leave him right back where he started. Alone.

And then maybe he will search for her, as Psyche did Cupid, and go through another adventure or so. Or may be I am just reading too much into this. Perhaps that “sliver of ice” might grow again into something more awful in that isolation. We all know that The Doctor cannot be alone for too long. And imagining that shard of ice becoming a glacial heart within the being of The Valeyard … is not too far off the mark when you wonder just how much more hearts-break can The Doctor take before he completely loses it.

Of course, this is as always mere conjecture and as Doctor Who stories go, it will be something completely unexpected. But The Doctor might want to remember something else. As Neil Gaiman has written in Sandman, there is a difference between a secret and a mystery. A secret is a truth that is waiting to reveal itself. A mystery is something–or in this case someone–that just is. And I hope more than anything that he takes a mystery to be someone and gets to know Clara as she is and that the beautiful knowledge of it does not destroy him and leave him alone in the ashes.

ETA: As an aside, the following is a teaser photo from the episode “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS.” I’ll bet you all Whovians will want to read this.

It’s too bad it probably won’t be in chronological order.

For Red

Her first eye is Gaia and her second is Oceanus.

This, above all else, is the gaze I recollect underneath the plumage of the firebird and the lash of the Eumenides that occasionally comes out from her generous mouth. Yet the red also reminds me of Prometheus: of audacity and the cackling thievery of fire. However, even the Titan himself was punished by the slow, cyclical eating of his liver … save that her fate is more arbitrary than the whims of gods and her own body is not as infinite. I always fear for the day when Medusa might catch her chimeric gaze and the reversal of Galatea might come fully upon her.

Yet even the Gorgon cannot fully meet the eyes that mirror the ancient and glorious horrors of the Bacchanalia. For she who drinks the wine of blood and bathes in its ochre depths dances around the whole of humanity as though skipping through a grove of statues.

So full of utter gall and mocking bile from her revels, she grins at the carnal carnage before her and the perfect white sickle of her smile becomes the blade that castrates her own fear.

Sea Shells, See Shells by the Sea Shore: A Review of C. Anthony Martignetti’s Lunatic Heroes

I have been looking forward to reading C. Anthony Martignetti’s Lunatic Heroes: Memories, Lies and Reflections for some time, and now that I have finished reading it, I find I have a lot of different things to say. In fact, what I think I’m going to do is the following.

I am going to write two sections to this review. The first will be an attempt at a more literary perspective of Lunatic Heroes, while the second will deal with my own personal reactions to the stories themselves. Before I go on, however, I just want to say that I will be referring to Anthony by his first name due to the way that I was introduced to him. I will elaborate on that later, but I just want to say that it would feel weird after reading about him and his own work to call him anything else. It’s the not first time I have done this with an author and it probably won’t be the last.

Lunatia heros is a species of Northern moon-snail that likes to live close to the shoreline of bodies of water. They are large gastropods that like to eat clams and other snails: including members of their own species. They consume their prey by drilling holes in their shells, releasing digestive enzymes, and sucking out the partially digested contents of their victims from within those shells. In fact, the only thing left of their fellow snails are these empty shells. According to Wikipedia, these moon snails hunt other mollusks down by searching for those that bury themselves in the sand of the shoreline.

Of all the titles Anthony could have given his work, Lunatic Heroes is by far the most apt. This book is essentially a collection of fifteen short stories or, technically written recollections, of some of the major events in Anthony’s life. Even though the book itself is categorized as a memoir, which it is, each narrative is both interrelated and self-contained.

At least twelve of these stories deal with Anthony’s childhood with his Italian-American family in Boston, while the remaining three focus on Anthony as a developing independent adult all the way to contemporary times. I don’t want to make too much of a generalization, but each story is about the insanity of the human condition. After all, the word lunatic is derived from the Latin word Luna and it was once thought that someone suffering from madness was “moon-touched,” while at the same time the moon itself has always been associated with the other world of the night, creativity and intuition.

In this, the metaphor of Lunatic Heroes functions in a few different ways. On one hand, most of Anthony’s stories are about the dysfunctional elements of his own family and his 1950s childhood: about the way each character would attempt to devour Anthony’s extremely introverted essence, digging under the sand where his self hid in order to successfully–or unsuccessfully–get at it.

On the other hand, Anthony’s narratives also take many of these same characters and portray their other more relatable sides. It is no coincidence, after all, that the heroes of ancient literature–for all of their deplorable moral behaviour by contemporary standards–still possessed a spark of divinity and managed to perform great deeds. In a fiercely passionate and witty voice tempered with a nostalgic unsentimentality not unlike that of Will Eisner, Anthony manages to show that these characters from his own life aren’t always monsters, but are very fallible human beings with some moments of relation, levity, and downright comedy: even and especially in some of the worst situations that he depicts.

What drew me in as a reader were the very mutable archetypes that Anthony managed to identify in his life: specifically with regards to how they transferred and inter-lapped throughout each story that he gathers together into a strange whole. Sometimes each narrative doesn’t always fit in a straight-line–which is more than fair given how a life of human interactions is generally never shaped that way–and he occasionally repeats a sentence from a previous story. But the archetypes really drew me in. Certainly, the whole Scylla and Charybdis parallel childhood dilemma in “Force Fed” was made very uncomfortably clear, just as the figure of a Far Eastern form of enlightenment and a symbolic place of personal transformation is within “Swamp.”

So thus ends the very brief and relatively spoiler free part of my review. Now I am going to talk about my personal reaction to Lunatic Heroes. I will say that I particularly related to “Force Fed.” When I was a boy, I was a very fussy eater and after I started to lose weight at twelve, my family thought that I had some kind of eating disorder. I didn’t really see a problem: in that when I stopped feeling hungry, I simply stopped eating. I was also lactose intolerant and I didn’t know that until my doctor and a slough of very uncomfortable and embarrassing tests happened. I lost a lot of weight from simply no longer eating dairy and then having a growth spurt. It also didn’t help that I was a very nervous child and my stomach suffered for it. But I could definitely relate to Anthony’s account of being made to feel like there was something wrong with you just because you simply weren’t hungry enough by the standards of others or the fact that you didn’t want to become sick.

I could definitely relate to the moments of introversion and hyper-sensitivity from Anthony’s depiction of his childhood self and that paradoxical need to have your parents always in your life, but at the same time that need to keep that bubble of personal space around you from being violated by the rest of the world: sometimes in vain. That is why I particularly related to–and if anyone knows me and is reading this they will be laughing by now–the last story “Hate.”

I admit that I was actually concerned when Anthony ended his memoir with a story entitled “Hate,” but it made sense. The thing is, Anthony is a psychotherapist and there are some things he talks about throughout the entire book–mindfulness, being in your head and needing to be in your body–that is very reminiscent of what my own therapist has been telling me for quite some years now. In “Hate,” Anthony even mentions how he still has snap judgments and immediate–and sometimes unfavourable–superficial impressions of people. They can bring up various associations his life: not all of them pleasant. But he also mentions how by realizing that these same people have pain and loss in their lives, it makes them relatable as human beings. It is still a lesson I have to keep reminding myself of during some of my more misanthropic world-obliterating moments of glee.

I also totally understand where Anthony is coming from in “The Head,” when he writes about the darkness and anger that he is feeling in himself even while he is with his wife and dog at a peaceful retreat: the knowledge of this fact that just made him feel worse until he has one moment of mindfulness. I think Anthony really hit home for me that you can mentally and emotionally awaken many times in life: and for different reasons. In that, “Swamp” and the events with regards to the freak show in “Carnival” really come to the fore. In addition, the story “Nonno” made me really miss my own Zaidy while I can more than sympathize with the need to belong and centre yourself and finding a place like “Harvard Square” home.

I am almost finished this strange review. But to make it even stranger, I want to write down some very notable lines, or moments of text that just made this entire book for me:

Anthony writes about longing: “But this time I felt the ache you get when longing for something you don’t think you have, coupled by the fear that you’d blow it if you did” (107).

He also describes the process of maturity, stating, “I was pulling off the heist of the decade, stealing the truth about myself from every encounter” (108-109).

Finally, there is this: “I imagined eventually befriending the Devil and getting promoted to demon status, sharing the power of evil and control over an infinite number of she-devils who would hungrily do my bidding” (129).

These are just such universal impulses and feelings, and as a writer I kind of wish I had been the one to express myself in such a way. The metaphor of the Lunatic Heroes is even more ingenious because in addition to moon snails being predators, Lunatia heros always leaves perfectly preserved husks from all of its feedings. Think about that for a few moments: even though the snail is gone, like the imprint of a lost self or Virginia Woolf’s spot on a wall, its shell–the testament to its existence–is left unearthed in the sand. It’s left there for others to find and see and marvel in the patterns that they created. In other words, we are the predators and the prey of our selves, but by simply living we take the selves of others with us, and we leave a testament to their existence. It is an excellent extended metaphor for a writer, the act of writing, literature itself and the state of being human.

Now I am finally going to tell you the reason why I refer to Anthony by his first name in this review. Through reading Anthony’s book, I feel like I know him a little more. But that is only part of it. The rest of the reason has to do with how I discovered him.

It was mainly by accident. I was searching for Amanda Palmer’s Blog and I came across her entries about Anthony and just some of what he means to her. I will let you read that entry should you so wish. But what I will say is that Amanda wrote the “Introduction” to Anthony’s book and she said something that really got to me.

Amanda wrote the following, “I had a small glimpse into the act of writing as a direct escape from pain. For the first time, I experienced the physical truth of what it felt like to dwell in the act of creation as the only viable escape from an unbearable, unfaceable reality” (ix). I read this statement and I took a look at myself. I took a look at my notebooks around me in my room. And then I looked at the one hundred or so posts I’ve made on this very Blog. I took a look at what I try to do every single day now and I thought…

Yes. Just … yes.

Amanda also went on to talk about how she and Anthony delve into the uncomfortable, and awkward, and painful moments of clarity that is life. And you will find that and more in exquisite detail if you read this book.

Now I am going to end off now by doing something even stranger. I am going to give Lunatic Heroes a four out of five.

And here is why.

After reading “The Introduction” and Anthony’s “Acknowledgments,” and just hearing about him and some of his life from Amanda’s Blog, I wanted to know … more. Even though the way he describes his childhood, sometimes blatantly and sometimes tinged with hazy mythical half-memories is reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s Violent Cases, I want to know about the rest of it: the adolescent rebellion you see forming in the latter stories, what happened in the rest of his travels, what his other fights were about, and more about his exposure to other philosophies and other relationships.

When it comes down to it, I want to see more. And as one lunatic hero to another, Anthony, I sincerely hope to.