I look down at my body as my sisters’ children carry it into the shade. It seemed so strong, and I was always proud of it until this moment. Now it is a thing of curiosity to see and I feel only wonder that it is so small and seems so foreign. I see the rough texture of my deep brown skin where the heat dried it as I ran across the scraggly forest of terebinth trees. They are much shorter here than normal because there is so little water in this place. I see the soft texture of my breasts as the fall against my chest. Many years ago those were the source of life for my daughters, and I was so grateful to have brought them both safely into the world so they could nurse and grow deliciously fat on my milk. I kissed them every day and loved them as they grew and turned into young women with flashing eyes and quick feet.
Then my eyes fall as I see the scars down my left side that I received when I was trying to save them from the earth as the mountain collapsed around us. I howled and screamed with all my might, but I could not pull them out from under the rock. I forced my way down again and again as the edge of the rock that held my daughters cut into me. I gave my blood for them, but it was not enough.
After that day, I ran into the forest and was never the same. Each night I slept in a tree that carried me gently through the dreams of my sorrow and led me to a place where I could rest and let go of what I could not change. After the winter had come and gone and the light began to grow longer each day, my sister came for me to see if I had survived the grieving time. She looked so hopeful I could not disappoint her. I ran out of the cover I had become used to hiding in and threw my arms around her. We laughed and wiggled and fell to the ground in joy.
She took me back to the place where the people lived and told them I had made it through the test. The Wise One came and found that my eyes were still clear and I could still keep silence. My sister already knew this, but still it had to be done in the ceremonial way so that everyone could understand. To me this seemed so easy it was not a test, but it was the way of my people to find out if a person such as I had become could do both these things. Many of them had a great horror of silence, so I understood it would be difficult for some. But for me it was always easy to remain still and listen. Only the places of death were ever truly quiet, and there was so much to learn from all that was being said around me.
Since I had lived as an animal after loosing my children and because I could draw strength from keeping silent, I was to be the traveler of the tribe from the day I returned to them. It would be my duty from then on to go into the places that scared others and do the work that needed a human to do it. There were never very many of our people who did this, but it was essential to do it so our ancestors could continue to support us as we went forward. If one of us could not go to them, then they could not easily come to us. I was not sure about taking this position at first, but I wanted to be a part fo my tribe again, and we were facing many changes. So I agreed to learn form the Wise One how to visit the ancestors, and my training began. It started with the story of our people.
We had only recently made the choice to change how we lived. Before that choice, we were an animal like any other. Our lives were part of the life of all things because we were predator and prey each time the sun rose and each time the darkness came. The small creatures drank our blood when they could and ate our flesh when we died. The large beasts hunted us and many of us fell to their claws and teeth. We rarely made sounds except in moments or danger or ecstasy. We had no names because we didn’t need them. All of us could speak directly to each other in symbols, energy and images, just as most of the other animals still can.
This way of living went on for so long that nobody could tell the story of how long. Then one time as the people began to awaken from their dreams in the mornings and to have different dreams in the daylight hours, they began to talk to the earth. The conversation carried across the life and death of several families in many places. Back then this was no problem. It was easy for people in different places to be part of the same discussion because we were all so good at dreaming. When it was finished, we had come to an agreement. We would step forward into a new way of being.
We would live in places without the small creatures that clean the forest and turn the cycle of death and decay into life and springing forth anew. We had chosen to alter the world around us in ways that would live on beyond one lifetime and be visible to the future. We had chosen to keep the beetles and scorpions out of our beds and to sweep away the leaves that fell on the places where we gathered to eat. This was accepted by the Mother because of the gifts that we offered in return.
The first gift was the cleaning of the forests. As a tribe, we agreed to use fire and our skilled hands to bring life and death in equal measure to the forests so that the balance could be maintained and so that they could grow strong in the abundant variety held within them. We agreed to help all the different plants and animals, spirits and ancestors who could come to live in these new kinds of forests to grow and prosper. The Fae who had come out of the Earth before us agreed to share some of their magic with us so that we could keep our promise to be custodians of the woods with beauty and grace. They began to teach us, and our voices began to be used for song in addition to cries of intensity. But still we had so much to learn before we could give this gift. Even so, it was important to give this gift first because it was the largest and the scale of our generosity in giving it could help the most around us.
The second gift was the keeping of the flames within each household and gathering of our people. We agreed to take on the task of mastering fire so that it could become a force of creation in our hands. It came from many different places, and some of the other animals already knew how to use it before we learned to bring it into our lives on purpose. But none of them could control it, and the destruction caused whenever they used it was great. The most successful were the hawks, because they could fly fast enough to outrun the flames after catching their prey when it ran from the fire. But even they could not speak to fire and hold it back from devouring all around it until it died.
We took it upon ourselves to learn how to hold fire inside mushrooms and take it from place to place, or within the pith of a stalk and carry it to a new campsite. We learned to call it in from a small. glowing ember and bring forth a blaze just large enough to do the work of cooking our food or guarding our campsite at night. This is also the time when most of our people began to move into caves as the sun fell and the stars filled the sky at night. Before this, we were not safe because most who hunted us were only a little larger than we were, and could easily trap us in a cave as we slept, then rush in to attack. With a watching circle of flames outside the opening, we could sleep safe and dry.
In this work, the Shining Ones lent us their magic, for some of them were made of fire and knew how to understand it. With their knowledge and our hands, we were able to learn the mastery of the flames that would make it possible for us to give both the first and second gifts. In thanks we began to burn parts of our food as offerings to them. In this way we began to come closer and closer in relationship with the Gods.
They helped us learn to dance with the tame fires so that together we became a force of creation that allowed us to cure the forests of the massive infernos that would explode through them when lightning struck in a time of drought. We burned the dead branches regularly and carefully so that they would not accumulate and wait for the lightning to release them. The first time we saw the fire come from the sky and only two oaks burned instead of the whole forest, we sang together in joy and thanks.
The Gods helped us to understand that, though it is very powerful, fire is also forgetful and inconstant, just like the worst of us are when we give way to our passions and regret it afterwards or when we give our word and cannot remember what we agreed to do the next year when the time comes. The dance between us and the flames must be done often so that both participants remember they gave their oaths in front of The Three Mothers to work together for all time or suffer the consequences of forgetting their words. The Fae did not participate directly in this agreement, but it is their brothers who dance through the flames and meet those of our tribe who come to spiral with them.
The third gift we agreed to give was the keeping of our homes as spaces of cleanliness. We agreed to take on the work of the beetles and ants who carry away the tiny pieces of death and clutter to make them new again. We also gave our word to do the part of the fungi and molds who consume the old and breathe out new things. And if those things could not be done directly by our people, we agreed to take what we did not want or could no longer use into a place where the small creatures could once again do their proper work upon them.
This made our homes places where we could hear the Great Mother of the Dark Earth more clearly and listen to her wisdom. Before this, only a very few places of extreme cold, deserts, or deep within the blackest caves held enough silence to allow us to easily hear Her song through the clamor and noise of all the small things that are living, dying and being remade. This was a gift given by us because it put us in a position to hear Her calls more quickly than we had before and to act upon them more easily than we had when they were mediated through other channels. But it was always a delicate balance to maintain the calm that was needed to be able to understand what She said. Her undiluted voice is full of power and wonder, but she also speaks a language of her own that is not like others ways of speaking. It also takes much longer to hear than the call of a raven or the song of a wren because She often speaks very slowly when important things are being said. Sometimes it takes many generations of our people to finish hearing one of Her messages.
The Fae have always been with those who do this work because the balance it brings is a blessing to their world as well. When we began to clean our places of dwelling, they began to teach us songs to make the work more beautiful and to help our bodies gain power when the work was long and difficult.
I find myself thinking of these things as I see the soles of my feet. My sister’s daughters are giving my body water by wrapping it in wet fibers from the reeds around the pond on the other side of the hill. But the feet hang out and jiggle as they work to keep my body alive so that I can return to it when I am done here. They look like meat being made ready to eat, which I do not yet want to become. I also know that if I am not careful, that is exactly what I will be. A traveling spirit looking at her cold body laid out on top of a stone. If I do not succeed and fail to return within the time they know I have to complete my task, my people will take me to the top of the hill above where they are now and leave my body for the vultures to consume. It would be an act of love and hope that I might be able to still return from the sky at the very last and make it to the world of the ancestors under the earth so that I could be part of the people’s future even if I have left their present. They do not want me to stay where I am going, and neither do I.
I still have my task to accomplish, so I turn my energy back to the ascent. As I ran at top speed across the dry land with the tiny, shriveled trees, I chanted my song over and over to myself until I fell to the earth and began my climb. Then it was heavy and difficult for me because my breath was already being used to power my legs and arms. Now it is so much easier to sing as my sister’s children take care of my limbs. I can climb faster and with much greater ease to join the circle.
It has been a long, long time since one of my people was needed here in this gathering. Ages have passed and life has gone on. But now another change point is coming. Several of the longer cycles of regeneration have all met at the same time. This means one of us needs to be here to sing with the Red Mother of Gold and Flames as She makes Herself anew. I was selected because I was both the oldest and the strongest of my people. This gave me the best chance of making the climb and returning to my body afterwards because of my strength and experience. This place where I am going is too far for most of us to reach and be able to return. I was also the most familiar with the three spirals of the three gifts and would therefore be better able to find my way out here where the circle was being held more easily.
I keep the image of the three gifts in my mind as I approached the gathering. They knit themselves together into a shining triple spiral as I near the edge of the circle. It is the calling card that will allow me to enter. Here, I am a guest, and I must be respectful as all guests should be when they are given a place at a circle far from home. I carefully slow my climb as I reach the outer edges of the energy that is pouring from the circle. I can see it arcing and flying out in all directions into the distance. I know better than to try to follow or understand where it is going or why. The magic here is far too big for me to ever grasp. I am the only one here who has ever had a body that could and will die. All the rest are far larger and older than I will ever be. Most of them I do not have names for because they are beyond name.
Suddenly, one of the guardians fills the space around me. They are both a shinning welcome and a terrible, cold death at the same time. I feel them examining the living image of the three spirals I hold as it transforms into something else. Then they are gone and I am at the edge of the circle. The song is already beginning and the wheel is starting to turn. I have arrived just barely in time. I take my place and lend my voice. The circle picks up speed and the rest of what happens is beyond my ability to carry back through the limited channels of language. It is all happening in the ways of a place that I will never truly be from, so it is no wonder I do not understand it.
But I know on the deepest possible part of my being that the sisters tending my body will not be disappointed. I have done my part for my people and we will be remembered in this new time as the circles of becoming disengage and make their separate transits into what will next arrive to manifest itself. I am full of life and joy as I take my leave of the circle when it is time and fall across the blackness between the stars. I am moving so fast that not even thoughts can follow me as I shoot back into my body. I crash like a meteor from the heavens, burning my way brightly back into my own place and time. I find that I am shaking and crying with relief and surprise. I am moving involuntarily so much that I am as yet unable to take the sips of water offered to me from the bowl that is the skull of my ancestor. The sisters stand back as I roll and convulse my way back into being within my flesh. It is ugly, terrible and sacred all at once. They have helped me before, so it is also not a surprise to them. Soon I am only crying sticky, dehydrated tears and they are gently bringing the water and herbs to my lips so that I can be restored.
Authors’ Post Script: This story is about the ancestor of a woman I wrote about in January. If you would like to read Agranona’s story, you can find it here.