He stood where I was used to seeing him. As usual he gave no indication of being aware of me. I felt sheepish, but took a deep breath and plunged on. ‘Hi, I’m Suz.’ Silence. ‘I just wanted to – um – say hello. Introduce myself.’ Still nothing. ‘Okay. Have a nice day,’ I managed, and foxtrotted away.
The next day it was as if he hadn’t moved. This time I said nothing, just paused next to him for a few moments, let myself get absorbed in the pastoral scene ahead of us, then nodded to him and went on about my day.
This continued for a long time, until it became the norm. At some point I stopped feeling ignored. The silence became what we did, no judgment attached. I honestly don’t remember how long it was before I felt his eyes actually focus on me for the first time. And it wasn’t for long. I saw him see me, and just for a moment his eyes crinkled merrily at me, and then it was back to the pleasant complete disassociation with my presence.
Don’t you love eyes that crinkle like that when they smile?
From that time I stopped having even the slightest angst about whether or not he would ever actually speak to me. We shared the same space for a little time on most days, and that was enough.
I got in the habit of leaning on him sometimes, just lightly. He’s big, and sometimes it’s windy. I don’t remember for sure if it was wind that prompted it. But it felt natural, and he was clearly fine with it.
In a summer dusk I stood close, but not touching him. We were watching the fireflies spiral up like sparks from a bonfire, up from the shaggy grass and into the soft dark tree line. The stars weren’t out yet, and the sky was a vivid unsettling mauve. A finger tentatively touched my hair and withdrew.
‘Hello,’ he murmured. I smiled into the twilight and didn’t reply.
The stars came forward. The night breathed in. As I turned to go I felt that little touch again.
‘Good night,’ I said.
One autumn evening I found him on his knees peering myopically at the grass. ‘What are you doing?’ I asked as I approached.
He blinked at me. ‘You see close things better than I,’ he said. ‘Do you see something here?’
I knelt down beside him. The chilly grass around us was alight with dying fireflies, gleaming and fading so slowly. I told him what they were, and we knelt there together for a while, our knees getting soaked.
‘Why are they here?’ he asked me at last.
‘Maybe they like you,’ I replied. ‘Be in the presence of those in whose company you’d be proud to die and so forth.’
His brows twitched, then smoothed.
We danced together in the full moonlight of winter. At least I danced, while he hummed and swayed as I twirled breathlessly around him. I stopped, panting, my hands on my knees, and threw back my head to look up at the sky. He was staring down at me with two moon-shaped possum eyes. I shrieked and clutched my chest.
‘What the hell?’ I demanded.
He grinned a white feral grin.
One fine spring day I found him splendidly decked out, preening as I approached.
‘Whoa,’ I said admiringly. ‘Nice.’
As I got closer I got a whiff of something pungent. ‘Dude! You may want to rethink that fragrance.’
His eyebrows shot up, then drew together.
‘Why does everyone say that?’ he said, half to himself. He sniffed, hunched a shoulder at me. ‘I like it.’ And I got no more out of him that day.
I ran up to him in the rain, thrumming with excitement, so eager to share my good news that I didn’t care about the cool drizzle plastering my hair in soggy strands across my face.
‘Guess what?’ I shouted as I neared him. He was staring off over the heads of the trees, eyes unfocused.
‘Hey!’ I skidded to a stop in front of him. He didn’t look at me. ‘Hey,’ I said again, patting, then tapping, then thumping on his shoulder.
No response. Finally I stalked away, half expecting or hoping that he would call after me. But he didn’t.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked him not long after he began speaking to me. It was one of many questions I asked him to which he did not reply. Long after I had given up hoping for an answer he said thoughtfully, ‘Tyr,’ as we watched a herd of deer drift like ghosts across the pasture.
I was watching the lame doe lurch after one of her recalcitrant twins. ‘What?’ I said, wincing.
‘You can call me Tyr,’ he replied.
I stopped watching the deer and gaped at him. ‘Is that your name?’
He crinkled his eyes at me. ‘No. It’ll do, though.’
Most of the time he’s maddeningly laconic. But sometimes he surprises me. We spent the better part of one Summer Solstice night arguing the difference between introspection and narcissism, and how xenia and common courtesy affect them both. I can’t even remember now who took what positions, but after the discussion heated up and cooled down I whacked him in the ribs and told him he was an inflexible ogre, and he poked me in the belly and called me a callow dilettante. We grinned at each other.
I sighed one day as we stood together. ‘What’s wrong?’ he asked.
I thought about it. ‘I don’t know,’ I said.
He contemplated me for a while. ‘You miss your kids,’ he pronounced.
I was taken aback. ‘I don’t know if that’s it.’
‘Yes,’ he said. He put his arm around me. I leaned into his trunk. A few tender leaves brushed my cheek.
Bees buzzed in the clover at our feet.
We don’t like thinking about Love. We think we like it. We tell ourselves we like it. But Love makes us so uneasy, so fearful, so desperate, that we put lots of rules around it, and try to tame it. It’s too wild, too dangerous, too destructive. But if we define it as thus-and-such, and rule out any form that doesn’t conform with the safe, acceptable mask firmly in place, maybe we can confine it, constrict it, keep it pretty but fangless, bloodless, pain-free, tamed.
It’s good that we teach our kids, boys and girls but in these days it’s okay to add more emphasis to the girls- as always, they’re in greater danger- that Love should be a Positive Thing, and that they need to have their own boundaries in place, and the necessary tools and practice so that they learn to maintain those boundaries under pressure. But it’s a process, and only useful so long as one keeps its parameters in mind. One can define a ‘healthy love relationship’ in fairly concrete forms, at least as each person to some degree modifies it subjectively, but who the hell really thinks that all love is healthy and positive?
Love is not patient. Love is not kind. It does envy, and boast, and hurt, and lash out, and shatter. Sometimes. Love is wonderful, but it is also ghastly. Super-damaged people can love. They probably don’t love well, or appropriately, or according to anyone else’s moral code. But most people are capable of love of some sort, and experience it in some fashion, even if it’s twisted and awful. Even when the outcome isn’t happily ever after.
I recently read a Facebook meme about Romeo and Juliet. You’ve seen it, I’m sure. How anyone who’s actually read it knows it’s not a love story but a dysfunctional saga about two deluded kids who get dead and dead everyone around them. It’s a popular stance. Pretty much any time I taught R&J I could count on parents winking at me conspiratorially and sotto voce-ing about how annoying the angst and drama of teenagers can be. I get it, I guess, but I disagree. You’d have to completely skim it, not read it in any sort of depth at all, to come away with such a facile comprehension. It’s a classic myth in its depiction of Love. Fiery, all-consuming, ecstatic and sometimes cataclysmically destructive. I’m forcing myself to resist the impulse to quote Juliet’s witty sophisticated flirting at the masquerade, her heart-soaring impatient longing, then her shattering honesty at the balcony, the journey she makes in such a short time from little girl to young woman. (I confess to finding her more interesting than him, but he’s a sweetie too.) Anyone who thinks a 13 year old can’t be in love never experienced it. The passion of the awakening young is full and rich and drowning and gorgeous. I’m so sorry for those who missed out on it. It was agonizing and wonderful. Fortunately most of us survive it, and the fact that we grow up, cool down and move on does not mean it wasn’t real.
Real love can and often does strengthen and grow into a lifelong commitment. I’m so grateful to have found a lover with whom I got to experience the hot melty youthful lust, and the steady fires of decades of monogamous entwining. I like that Love looks that way to us. This is some good Love.
But it’s not the only Love.
Heathcliff and Cathy were not good Lovers. But wow. There’s all sorts of sturm und drang over the recently popular Twilight lovers (in addition to ‘real vampires don’t sparkle!!!!!!’ which makes me giggle uncontrollably, there’s lots of suppositions of stalker-ish behavior which modern folks translate into It Can’t Be Love) and the horrible Shades of Grey which still somehow taps into an almost ubiquitous longing for Love. Which may or may not come with whips and chains and nipple clamps. NOT LOVE proclaim many modern feminists, since anything with Power Over cannot be Love.
(Disclaimer- I’m a modern feminist. Just not always in lockstep with my brothers and sisters in feminism.)
Maybe it can’t be Love for everyone. Maybe it can’t be for you. Maybe you’re too well-adjusted to permit power inequity, jealousy, mental instability or poor judgment to cross your good boundaries. I applaud this. I’ve worked hard to achieve this. I’m reasonably sure that destructive unhealthy Love is unlikely to make it over my hard-built battlements ever again.
But fucked-up people love too. Adolescents love. Old people love. Inappropriate people love. MacBeth, that bloody psychopath, and his terrifying vicious wife are atrociously, irrevocably in love. Scarlett and Rhett. Didn’t last, but Love isn’t always forever. Jane and Rochester. Happy ending notwithstanding, talk about a social and power inequity. He’d be pilloried in the press today.
We ‘reclaim’ the old myths, turn the Kore and Hades into a romance with an oppressive mother, not an abduction, because we can’t bear for Love to be so terrible. We find ways to demonstrate compliance in the many mortal and semi-divine women in myth because we can’t get past the rape narrative to find the underlying truths, which are often harsh and unpalatable to modern sensibilities. There’s a value in this that can’t be denied. It’s a hugely positive step that rape and coercion are no longer acceptable in humans. (At least in some places. But that’s another post.)
But Love is greater, more all-encompassing, and more stark than even positive human societal evolutions.
We might like Aphrodite to bestow all her gifts upon us in the form of rose petals. It’s so wonderful when She does. There are lovely examples throughout Nature of ganders twining their necks lovingly around their mates, of elephants touching each other gently and wonderingly, of stallions devoted to their lead mares beyond the needs and behaviors of the herd. Heck, don’t slugs mate for life?
But that’s not all. Aphrodite is also present in rough animal couplings, the fiery sploodge of volcanoes, the lightning strike that wipes out a forest in roaring conflagration, the drowning of a coastline in a tidal wave.
She is greater than political correctness. You don’t get to put Her in a box, hem Her about with musts and nevers and carefully crafted definitions.
Love is greater and far, far more terrible than you. Keep your standards high, but don’t kid yourself for a second that your healthy happy definitions are all of the story.
Nobody puts Aphrodite in the corner.
Today I celebrated my personal festival of the Iaisonia, remembering the union in the thrice-ploughed field of Demeter and Iaison, his destruction, and Her mourning.
Ritual mourning is taking on a greater impact in my annual round of festivals, rather to my surprise. For the last year or so, its role as bringing crisis and catharsis has startled me with its deepening impact on my overall development and path. I’d never really thought about it much before, it felt more commemorative than immanently important.
But I think it is. From the Adonia (which of course has a lot of overlapping elements with my festival, as well as some significant differences) to the Anthesteria to the Thargelia, even the regular practice of sacrifice (which is of course always ritual for me as I don’t perform traditional animal sacrifice) it continues to resonate, sometimes overwhelmingly.
And perhaps because I was somewhat expecting to be overwhelmed with the mourning aspect today, it didn’t really happen. They always keep me off-balance.
What I got in full measure was the ekstasis, the enthrallment, a sense of the heart-pounding breathtaking dissolution. Everything seemed to throb and ache with beauty and longing once I was fully into the ritual mindset. It was a gorgeous day, still early enough in spring to allow me to move easily through the woods, with their early fuzz of pale green and vultures circling idly overhead.
I rarely go into the band of woods between us the next door property, and I so loved being there today. But it was creepy too- a scattered, almost full set of large bones. No skull so I can’t be sure, but I’m guessing it was a deer. I can’t believe the farm didn’t reek with it. Maybe it got dragged in. There are several banks under sentinel pine trees that are soft, mounded and elongated, alarming like graves. What ARE those neighbors up to? Dangerous deadfalls, and the random surprising hits of sweet forest scent. Those always strike me as gifts from Her, expressions of love and regard.
Those woods were filled with the feeling of Him. I scattered barley through them, picked up trash, let waves of wonder wash over me over and over.
In the back woods, our wild acre that’s given over almost entirely to the fae and nature spirits, there was a greater feeling of loss and sorrow, but not overwhelmingly so. The multiflora rose is dying back a little as the trees get bigger, but it still makes it difficult to get through some spots. In another month most of the paths back there will be inaccessible. I stood in the midst of a clearing, tall slender trunks all around me, and suddenly I realized that they were aware of me too, in a way I’ve never before perceived. For a few glorious moments, we were all in synch, the trees and I, dancing together in the wild spring breeze, while fat fluffy clouds raced overhead in the heartbreak blue sky. It was wonderful. I hope it happens again.
I found more construction trash back there. I can’t imagine how much junk the former owners must have thrown back there. For 16 years I’ve been clearing it out, and more still comes up out of the earth from time to time.
I thought I’d get overwhelmed with the sorrow back there, as it’s happened back in the Telesterion area during Demeter rituals before. Not so much though, just a big feeling of being part of it all, the female cycle through the stages, the male death and rebirth. The cosmic magnetism. The eternal return.
I love being a Hellene.
Chapter 6 On the Beach
The thick dark that precedes the dawn presses down on the two inert forms crumpled together on the crest of the hill above the sea. A wolverine, grinning and hungry, pads close to them, ears lifting. He pauses, sniffs, freezes in place, then hurries away.
There is no further movement on the hill other than the faint breathing of the pair of bodies. Not until the eastern horizon pearls ever so faintly and a light cold breeze stirs the girl’s matted hair do they stir.
Lykeios comes to consciousness first. He stifles a groan, but the slight sound is enough to rouse Kiri. Her eyelids flutter, then fly open, freeing the terror that was trapped behind them. Before she can shatter the pre-dawn stillness with her scream he wraps his cloak around them both. ‘Hush! We’re alive. Be still.’
He can see the effort it takes for her to wrestle the panic back down her throat. After a moment she croaks, ‘It was real. What we saw. The- the children.’ She shudders convulsively. ‘How did we get here?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t remember. We saw that- those things. And I don’t remember anything else until I woke up here, just now.’
The distant murmur of the ocean rolls in their ears. A glimmering line spreads in the east, separating the sea from the black sky. It is too dark for Lykeios to make out Kiri’s face but he can feel the waves of agony rolling over her.
‘Lykeios. Patrokles was there.’
His words stick in his throat. He has to swallow several times before he can force them out. ‘How could you tell?’
She drops her face into her hands. He can feel her shoulders shaking although she makes no sound. Finally she lifts her head and says thickly, ‘I know him. Even without- his face. I know him. It was my brother.’ Her voice stumbles to a halt. Then, on a rising note of horror, ‘He was trying to carry a baby. It was Eleni’s baby. And she was too heavy for him. He’s so small, almost a baby himself, but he was trying to take care of Eleni’s…….’ She begins to sob violently, furiously.
Lykeios is at a loss. He is so stunned by her words, after the unthinkable insanity of the past evening, that he cannot even reach a comforting hand to her.
Suddenly she stops crying mid-sob and flings herself to her feet, tears flying from her face and hitting Lykeios like tiny blows.
‘I’m going back. I’m going to get Patrokles. I’m going to take him and Eleni’s baby out of there.’ She whirls, dark against the still-starred sky, and grabs her pack. ‘I’m going to get them all.’
Lykeios gapes at her as she whirls her cloak over her shoulders and strides off. A protest flutters in his throat, then he leaps up and runs after her.
They do not go back down the hill and into the woods. Without exchanging a word they head north, staying on the crest of the high ground, keeping the sea in sight. The eastern sky turns gold, then green and rose. As the sun slides smoothly up, they reach the edge of the bowl and stare down.
Lykeios half expects to see nothing. Perhaps the nightmare scene was part of the same hallucinations as the gargantuan stallion who had led them there. Maybe the fear and exhaustion of their long trek culminating in colony of spiders had overwhelmed their senses. Probably the beach below was inhabited by fisherfolk, or a herd of deer, or nothing at all.
But what moves on the grassy meadow near the beach are not things that a rational man can accept.
Children stagger through the short tough grass. Some lie together in forlorn heaps. The horse heads nod and sag on necks too thin to support them. A few of the bigger ones are on hands and knees, trying miserably to graze.
Guttural noises drift up on the bright morning air.
On the beach the waves are rolling in, and there are forms in the white foam of the gentle breakers. To Lykeios’ astonished eyes they almost seem to be girls, lithe maidens with flowing hair and limbs of pearl. Armfuls of soft seaweeds, alive with small silver fish, are thrown onto the wet sand. Crabs busily haul it across the beach, depositing the glistening cargo onto the grass of the meadow.
Some of the grotesqueries are trying to nibble on it. The fishes flop and then lie still.
Where the woods meet the meadow there is a small band of wild mares, a few grazing but most huddled together, stamping, restless.
‘Where is he?’ breathes Kiri, eyes frantically searching the impossible scene. Lykeios sees a small boy leaning exhaustedly against a boulder by the sand. He points. The boy is pulling strands of the seaweed free and bringing them one by one to his small muzzle. At his feet lies an infant girl, her tiny filly head moving fitfully. A crab scuttles up to her, clutching a tiny silver fish in its claws, and seems to offer it to her, but she ignores it. It drops the fish at the boy’s feet and hurries back to the waterline.
‘Patrokles!’ Kiri leaps forward, then freezes.
‘Oh, little doula. Still braver than you are wise, I see.’ The voice is rich, melodic, rippling with a hint of humor that causes the hair on the back of Lykeios’s neck to spring erect. They both spin around so quickly that Kiri falls into Lykeios and they almost go down in a heap, but he grabs her, and they find their feet and stare open-mouthed at the figure which has come up behind them.
Lykeios battles back a shout of fear when he sees the great dark stallion before them. But even as his body twitches in terror he realizes that this is not the massive beast from before.
It is indeed a black stallion, but where the other one bulged with rock-like muscle, this one is lean, lithe, long of limb, and slender. The mane and tail are as green as the dawn sky before the sun rises, and so are they eyes that peer at them from under the silky forelock. And in those eyes are a gleam that can only be amusement.
Kiri’s jaw falls open. ‘It’s you. The foal. The foal from the cave. Out of the grey mare. You spoke then too.’
The elegant head dips in an ironic bow. ‘Of course, little doula. I could never forget the girl who helped my mother bring me into the world. and I didn’t think it likely that you would forget me.’ The lips stretch into an unsettling semblance of a smile. ‘And of course you also remember my sister.’
Kiri cries out, ‘The baby with the horse’s head,’ and the stallion again dips his head, a parody of courtesy.
‘Which brings us to our present unfortunate circumstance.’
Lykeios brings a hand to his head. ‘I don’t understand. How is it that you can speak?’
The green eyes rest on his face for a moment, then dismiss him and turn back to the girl. She is poised on her toes as if ready to run. ‘You cannot go the them. No,’ as she moves convulsively. ‘If you truly wish to help the victims of my sister’s rage you will listen to me. For I will give you the only hope you have, and I assure you it is a slender hope indeed.’
Kiri swallows hard, but meets his eyes with a direct gaze. The green eyes blink. ‘I will hear you. And I will do whatever I have to to free my brother. To free them all. I will not leave these children here. I will not leave without them.’
Leaf-shaped ears swivel back, then flick forward, tips almost touching. ‘You will. For if you approach them in that place, they will all die. My sire is displeased at the violation of order and keeps them in a state of prolonged existence while a solution is sought. But intrusion by a mortal is not permissible. You are fortunate indeed to have survived the very sight. Indeed, had I not intervened on your behalf, you would surely now be standing before the throne of the All-Receiver.’
Lykeios feels Kiri stiffen, then slump beside him. A fierce sob tears from her, then she tosses back her matted hair and steps toward the horse, fists clenched. ‘I don’t believe you. I must go to them.’
Lykeios puts a hand on her rigid arm, looking at the stallion. ‘You said a solution is being sought. What do you mean?’
The stallion shakes his forelock from his strange eyes and takes a step forward. ‘Ah, bard, that is the right question to ask. The Mother is enraged, and in Her rage She has produced the Daughter Who Must Not Be Named. And this daughter is enacting Her rage throughout the land. My sister cannot be approached. Do not dream that you can. But maybe- just maybe- our Mother can be. Because She may remember you, there is a slender chance that you might be the one who can appease Her.
I will not lie to you, little doula. The danger is grave beyond your imagining. She is terrible in Her wrath. Death is the gentlest outcome most can hope for in Her presence. And as you know, far, far worse is possible.
But my Mother bore me too, and there I am not born to bring terror and perversion. If you are willing to face more danger than ever have in your life, you may be the one human who can help bring order back to the world.’
Kiri gapes at him. ‘Worse danger than I’ve already faced?’
Lykeios swallows fear like a lump of charcoal in his throat. He puts a hand on Kiri’s shoulder, feeling it tremble. ‘What must we do?’ he manages to say around the lump.
The stallion eyes him, measuring. Suddenly he arches his neck, the green mane lifting then settling like a line of seabirds on a wave.
‘Go find Pan.’
Almost here again.
I’ve been celebrating the Anthesteria for a lot of years now. Almost ten, I think. It’s quickly becoming one of the most important festivals in my annual calendar, right up there with Samhain and the Greater Eleusinian Mysteries and Yule.
At first I just sort of stumbled through bewilderedly, grateful to have Sannion’s ‘Anthesteria for the Lonely Soul’ to give me a template. Basically putting the kleos and the prayers out there and hoping I’d get a better clue over time as to how to do it in a fashion the Gods and spirits would actually find useful.
And it’s happening. Every year adds layers and colors and complexity to it. Not always to the same degree. Last year’s was fairly quiet. The year before was jolting and scary and wonderful. But whether His touch is fierce or subtle, it’s there, and I crave it.
The Lenaia is the opener of the way, it’s become more and more clear. My private Lenaia this year was quietly ecstatic, but falling as it did on the blizzard, my energies were divided. I actually felt the effects far, far more strongly at and after the public ritual at the CUUPS event, which is odd because public ritual is usually much more about service than personal transformation. Just goes to show that you never know what’s going to jump you up. That it’s happening, that it keeps happening, is what keeps the Work so breathtaking.
The spirits are definitely stirring. I could feel it so strongly last night during the Deipnon, and today, walking among the trees in the falling snow. The Avalon trees are waking up. Tyr is almost fully alert. But what are gathering still on the far side of the portals aren’t ancestors, they’re older and wilder and more dangerous. It has a somewhat similar feel to Samhain, but not really.
I hope this year is one of radiant ones. It’s falling at a fortuitous time, so I should be able to concentrate on it almost exclusively.
But you never know.
I’ve been Working consciously to keep myself in a Hermes sort of space, and it’s mostly successful and pretty wonderful.
But I also thrill that Dionysos has been so very present for some time now. Even when He’s not all up in my stuff, He’s prowling around the edges, teeth gleaming.
I like it.
i’m really butthurt at myself for taking so long to write this. i guess it’s a small sliver that i’m sneaking it in before year’s end, although of course my plan was to have the entire thing written before the end of 2015.
but now at least i’m more than halfway. and i’m seeing lots of places to revise, rewire and reconfigger before it goes to Dver for publishing prep, but i have to resist the siren song of procrastination disguised as ‘editing’ and just finish writing the dang thing.
Kiri sighs and shifts the pack again, trying to ease the ache in her shoulders. The sun is hovering above the line of western hills, and it is bright and hot, and she is tired. They have been walking for several days without any clear destination or goal, and the pressure is building like a looming thunderhead.
‘Let me retie that for you,’ says Lykeios, reaching for one of the straps binding her pack to her back, but she slaps his hand away crossly.
‘Leave it. I’ll fix it when we stop.’
‘You’re heaving and sighing like a seal. If it’s uncomfortable, it’s stupid not to fix it. Or do you like heaving and sighing?’
‘I’d like to make some progress without finding excuses to stop every time a cloud passes over the sun’s face. What’s stupid is wandering along like we’re on a picnic. Or do you like dawdling like a broody sheep?’
‘We’re wandering because you say there’s a cave we have to find, but you don’t know where, or how far, or what direction, or what we’re going to find when we get there. Maybe if you tell me just what it is you’ve got us out here seeking we could actually make march along with some purpose instead of all this girlish vagueness.’
Kiri whirls and glares at him. He stands his ground and glares back. After a moment she sighs again and drops her gaze. ‘I know I’m being vague. I’m sorry. But it’s not something I can easily explain. You heard what I told my parents. There’s really not much more I can add. I’m not trying to keep you in the dark. It’s just so hard to express.’
But Lykeios does not stop glaring at her. ‘I’m a bard. I work with words. You could try, and if it’s not clear, you could keep trying. You’re worse than a mumbling mantis breathing sacred smoke and talking gibberish. At least a diviner wouldn’t have me stalking the hills when danger is afoot, and slapping me for trying to be of help.’
Kiri’s mouth twitches. ‘Words don’t fix everything. And sometimes you can use a good slap.’
His gaze finally relaxes, and he almost smiles. ‘So can you. But I’m too scared of your father to do it, even if you deserve it.’
Her face hardens again. ‘Deserve or no, I don’t need my father to keep me safe from the likes of you.’
‘Your father sent me out here with you to keep you safe from worse than me,’ he shoots back. ‘And if it hadn’t been for me, you wouldn’t have been allowed to make this crazy trek. So you can knock off threatening me with fists or knives, okay?’
Her sudden grin takes his breath away. ‘Okay.’ And she turns from him, and begins trudging up the rocky hillside again, pebbles skittering away from her goatskin boots.
The dusk has dissolved into damp darkness when they finally halt, and make their simple camp by starlight. They have not encountered any game that day, and make their meal of hard waybread baked with fat and a little meat. Lykeios mixes water into wine in a bowl and hands it to Kiri as she sits back with a sigh into her blankets.
‘Tell me again why we’re not searching the mountains near Kephalos and Eleni’s cave. Isn’t that where you encountered this- situation? I don’t understand why you feel we shouldn’t start at the beginning.’
Lykeios cannot see her face in the dark, but he hears the uncertainty in her voice. ‘I’ve been up that mountain a hundred times since then, and many hundreds more before. I tell you, the path that led me into the mountain cave isn’t there. I’ve looked for it. Wherever that cave is, it’s not something you can get to the same way you find other places. But I’m sure I can find it again. I’m sure She’ll let me. At least, I think so.’ Her voice quavers. ‘I don’t know what else to do. We’ve got to find Her.’
He sits in silence for a few minutes. Then, ‘Kiri, I believe you. But I don’t think this is going to work. We’ve got to make a better plan. We can’t just wander around and hope that a Goddess whose name we don’t even know so we can offer Her prayers will guide us in. It’s not just the danger out here, although the Gods know that’s enough to daunt a mighty warrior let alone a bard and goatherd. But the more time that passes, the less likely we are to find any of the children alive, if indeed there’s any hope of it now. And your people are terrified for you. We can’t keep them waiting forever for word, even if it’s bad news.’
The silence from across the little fire goes on for so long that he wonders if she has fallen asleep. Then she sets the wine bowl down with a decisive thump. Her voice is firm and cool. ‘I don’t know how I know, Lykeios, but this is what I have to do. I’ll walk until She’s ready to bring me to her. And if She doesn’t- well, I’ll go home. But there’s no strategy to lay out, and nothing else to be done. Just keep walking in the mountains.’ An edge creeps into her voice. ‘You don’t have to come with me. Go make a plan, and see how well it works.’
Fire leaps into Lykeios’ face, and a hot reply gets caught behind his teeth. He wrestles it down his gullet, and turns from the fire without another word and pulls his blankets over him. The fire dies down to a moody glow, and soon the only sound is steady breathing.
The stars wheel overhead.
Rhythmic thudding makes the ground under the thin blankets jump. Without volition Kiri and Lykeios stretch their hands out to each other and clasp them over the now-cool ashes. They do not look through the darkness at each other. Their eyes strain to pierce the cool night air, as the hammerblows continue to fall, louder and louder. A cold breeze picks up, damp and smelling of salt, disturbing in the arid mountains. Kiri’s hair blows across her face and clings in sticky strings. Lykeios feels his stomach begin to churn alarmingly.
A deeper blackness bulks against the sky to the southwest, blotting out the stars. A ragged mane lifts on the wet wind. A pair of green eyes gleam. A terrible trumpet rings out, and the black stallion rears, front hooves raking the stars out of the sky and scattering them into dust. Kiri and Lykeios let go each other’s hands to clap them over their own ears. The huge shape takes a few steps closer to them, then halts and lowers its triangular head, ears flat against the thick neck. The eyes bore into them. Just as Kiri is about to scream from the pressure of the gaze, the stallion breaks the connection, and turns away, the hindquarters like moving boulders, hooves the size of the round shields of mountain archers slamming into the earth as it moves back the way it came. But before it disappears over the ridge, it turns back once more, glaring, and its nostrils flare into a snort so loud it hurts their heads.
And then it is gone. And the next thing they know they are stirring in the dawnlight, and their bleary eyes blink at the scattered white ash of the fire.
Lykeios lifts his gaze to meet Kiri’s, wincing at the exhausted red-rimmed look of her. He reaches for her, then realizes that they are too far apart to touch.
‘Wait- how did we…….?’ he falters, and falls to silence.
‘It was a dream,’ she whispers back.
‘No. It can’t have been. You remember it too, I can see you can. We can’t have had the same dream.’
‘It was a dream,’ she insists, her voice rising. ‘But it was a true dream.’
He stares at her. ‘You’ve seen it before. That thing. That horse. Was it a horse?’
Her glassy gaze falters and drops. ‘Yes,’ she whispers. ‘Yes, I’ve seen him before. I don’t know what he is, but I’m so afraid of him.’ She looks up again, and her tired eyes lock onto his. ‘This is what I’ve been looking for. We have to follow him.’
He stares at her, aghast. ‘Follow him? That nightmare beast that just wrecked any future prospects for peaceful sleep in this lifetime! Are you mad?’
Her long, tangled hair hides her face. ‘No. Maybe.’ With a deep, shuddering sigh that wracks Lykeios’s heart she pushes her hair back, then hauls herself to her feet, giving him a disconcerting glimpse of what she will look like as an old woman. ‘I have enough mint and marjoram to make us some tea, and there’s a little bread left. We should make a point of gathering more herbs, and hunting, as we go. Will you stir up the fire?’
And that is how Lykeios found himself a short while later, his belly warmed with the light breakfast, following Kiri over the crest of the mountain, and down toward the plain below, heading southwest.
* * * * * *
It is four days later when Lykeios and Kiri crest a particularly challenging ridge to find the ground falling away under their feet, and a shining slab of gleaming, shimmering light spreading before them, far away to the barely discernible horizon. Kiri’s breath catches in her throat. Words desert her.
Lykeios feels her wonder without tearing his eyes from the moving humps and valleys of green, deep blue and cloud-white. ‘Io, Poseidon,’ he breathes, and a seagull screams overhead.
‘Is it……it must be the sea,’ whispers Kiri. ‘I didn’t know………’
‘Yes,’ he whispers back, not knowing why he whispers. ‘I’ve seen it before. But never from a vantage this high. I didn’t know it was so vast.’
They stand for a time that seems endless, and like no time at all. The afternoon sun ducks behind an errant cloud, and the undulating cloak goes dark and forbidding. Kiri shivers.
‘It’s wonderful. But it terrifies me. Why are we here?’
Lykeios smiles at her. ‘Because you said we needed to be here. Now what?’
She watches the sea below as the sun slides back into the blue, and the water brightens, seeming to laugh with relief. ‘We go on, I guess. What else is there?’
Their gazes lock. Then with one accord they begin to pick their way down the crumbling scree, grasping at tough little spiny shrubs as they make their descent toward a tangle of fig, olive, laurel and pine trees that separates the steep hills from the gleaming white crescent where the waves break and murmur.
The fresh breeze that cooled them on the heights becomes tangled in the rocks and stubborn, stunted trees of the slopes, and they are both sticky, sweaty and scratched as they work their way down the last stretch of mountain into the verge of the band of forest.
Lykeios lands hard on a shelf of stone at the bottom of the slope, swears briefly, then glances guiltily up the hill behind him with an apology poised on his lips. Before it can fly free, he is knocked off his feet by a flying girl who chuffs a surprised ‘Oof!’ then bounces lightly back on her feet.
‘Sorry,’ she offers breathlessly, along with her hand. He gazes at it bleakly for a moment before taking it and allowing her to haul him to his feet. He winces as he stands upright, bends over to massage an ankle.
‘You’re heavier than you look,’ he tells her, half expecting a sharp reply. But she twinkles at him.
‘And you’re softer than you look. Are you hurt? Did I do that, or was it that ungraceful shuffle down the last few feet?’
His mouth quirks for a second in spite of himself. ‘It was steep, and I’m tired. And I wasn’t expecting an assault from on high.’ He tries a tentative step, winces, and sits heavily on a boulder under an olive tree so ancient and gnarled that it hunches over the stone like a crone over a cauldron. ‘I don’t think it’s too bad. But I’m going to bind it. Give me a minute.’
‘I’ve got it,’ says Kiri briskly, whipping out a strip of coarsely woven cloth from her pack. A quick practiced glance around the rocky debris at the foot of the hill and the forest stretching to the northeast, and she pounces on a clump of comfrey and some moss from a fallen log. Before he can ask why she has packed his bruised ankle, wound the strip expertly around it, and tied it firmly into place.
‘There you are, my lad. No more lazing! On your feet and let’s see if we can make our way to the beach before nightfall. I want to see the ocean up close before the end of the day.’
He is working out an appropriately scathing retort when a quavering cry, sodden with inexpressible sorrow, freezes them in place.
The westering sun darkens although no cloud has crossed its face. Without speaking a word they both suddenly remember why they are here, and what they followed to reach this place.
Face gone abruptly ashen, Kiri hands Lykeios his stick and his bundle and helps him to stand. The woods have fallen silent at the cry. Even the insects are hushed. They stand for a moment, the olive branches swaying ever so slightly over their heads, and in the silence a rhythmic whisper, muted yet somehow enormous, like the soft breathing of a distant dragon. Eyes wide, Kiri whispers, ‘What is that? I’ve never heard anything like that before?’
Also whispering, Lykeios replies, ‘It’s the sea. We must be getting close. But that doesn’t explain that cry.’
Her eyes lift to his. They are swimming with fear. ‘Oh, Lykeios. What are we doing? This is mad. I don’t want to see this. I don’t want to know. Let’s leave. Let’s go home, right now. This was a crazy idea. Let’s get out of here, right now.’
His hand comes up, almost without volition, and cups her face. He watches a teardrop tremble on her lower lashes, caught like a drop of dew on a spider web, shimmering prisms of color. ‘We can’t stop now.’ His fingers move a little, feeling her swallow. ‘You know we can’t turn back now.’
The tears still shimmer unshed in her eyes, and the fear is still there. But her jaw firms under his fingers. She takes a deep breath, and her hand covers his, squeezes.
‘No. Of course not.’ Her gaze shifts into the woods. ‘Which way?’
He turns slowly, eyes searching the trees. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know where that sound came from. It seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. From the earth itself.’ Kiri stands silent, her wide eyes never leaving his face. He takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. At first he feels nothing. Then softly, insidiously, he feels a tug in his mind, a very small tug, like a shoot unfurling in the sun. Barely breathing, he allows his head to orient on the subtle signal, and as he moves the feeling strengthens. He opens his eyes into the red sun. ‘This way.’
They move through the trees. The foliage is too thin to dim the dying daylight, but it seems already dusk. Roots rise suddenly to catch even a carefully placed footfall. Twigs twine and poke, aiming for eyes. Kiri cries out as a branch like a tiny talon draws blood from her cheek, but she stifles the sound as soon as it leaves her lips. It seems to make the trees, formerly familiar and friendly, turn toward them with a terrible eagerness. They know the trees cannot really shift more closely to each other, but the feeling of being hemmed in persists.
‘Are you sure?’ Kiri whispers, and her hand creeps into his.
‘Yes,’ he whispers back, warmed despite his fear. It is the first time she has spontaneously touched him. His fingers close on her cold ones, and they both feel momentarily braver.
The woodwalk seems to take hours, or days, but beyond the veil of gloom draping the branches they can still see fire in the sky. At the same moment they realize that the dragon breathing has become louder, insistent. Lykeios glances at the orange and purple beyond the treetops and catches himself wondering wearily if there actually is a dragon dozing outside the bounds of the woods, preparing to stretch and yawn and unfurl enormous wings before launching into the starry sky, perhaps with its belly warmed by two young humans. Then he feels Kiri’s tug on his hand and halts with dismay, gazing with her at the hopeless mat of thick grey spidersilk blocking the already difficult path through the trees.
The mass of strands is not still. It quivers and thrums ceaselessly in the dim light as countless leggy figures, some tiny, some as big as his hand, explore and hunt and build and tear down and reconstruct and wrap and feed. His skin crawls. His hair seems to creep and skitter across his scalp. He can feel Kiri begin to tremble violently.
‘Lykeios, I don’t think we could get through that in broad daylight let alone now with the night so close upon us.’ Her voice shivers with despair.
He looks at her. ‘Can we really go back? Or camp here tonight, and try in the morning?’ He shudders involuntarily at the prospect of sleeping under the night gaze of the hungry trees and the almost subliminal rustling of the webs. He sees his feelings mirrored in her face, her teeth worrying her lower lip as she looks at the silvery glint of the silk before them.
But before she can answer the terrible wavering cry comes again, filling the deep red air, shattering on the sharp branches and drifting down on them like dust. The anguish is unbearable. It lingers long after the sound itself has died away into a trail of soft sobs. The boughs seem drenched in a dew of despair.
Lykeios feels his knees soften, and stiffens them with an effort. Kiri’s hands are clenched over her mouth, eyes like moons above them. A tiny sound, a kitten’s growl, escapes from behind those hands. Moving convulsively she takes her cloak and wraps it tightly around her head and shoulders, leaving only a slit for her eyes. Taking her knife from her pack, she steps forward and begins to slice and hack her way through the skein of silk, spiders raining on and over her.
Lykeios chokes out a prayer, to whom he cannot say. He follows her.
It is impossible for the last flares of the sunset to still enflame the sky when they emerge from the woods, clothes torn, feet bruised, festooned in ragged silk, countless painful lumps rising all over their faces and bodies, scuttling shapes adoring their clothes and hair. And yet the west throbs incarnadine over a jagged arete which falls down into a shadowy bowl in which small horrors are moving.
Kiri steps to the rim of the steep hillside. Below her to the left deep mauve waves break onto the sand, exploding into white foam. She has dreamed her whole life of experiencing her first glimpse of the sea, but neither its majestic roll nor the dragon’s breath roar make the slightest impression on her as she stares below her where scores of figures totter on the grass. Even as she watches, some fall and lie motionless.
They have the bodies of children. But they have the heads of horses.
i am basically very lazy, and low energy, and i keep avoiding the Work. over and over.
there’s no excuse for it.
so last night, as i walked through the dry prickly grass to bring my offerings to His herm, i asked how i could reconnect. get back to Him. take up the mantle (and the pen) again. told Him how mortified i am for being such a schlub.
and all i got back was love. joy that i’m ‘back.’ no pejorative judgment whatsoever.
and naturally, to get back to the Work. but not with any feeling of eye-rolling, or tight divine lips, or hands on divine hips. just love.
how does one even begin to repay such generosity? such complete and untrammeled acceptance?
actually, He answered that too.
i don’t understand how anyone could experience the Theoi and walk away. ever.
and as i stepped away from the herm, His last whisper to me was ‘I am all things for you.’ or maybe ‘I am all things to you.’ very (typically) slippery of Him, as they mean quite different things, don’t they?