With each lapping of its great tide, time bore him further away, beyond the reach of all her grasps. Yet she was convinced that in all the important ways, time itself could not touch him. Strange, then, that she remembered having heard others in her situation make observations such as already, the memory of dear so-and-so was retreating into the haziness of dim recollection.
Well, she had an answer to that. A one-word answer — or perhaps two, depending on how it was spelled.
Those sentiments, they had to be nothing more than well-intentioned lies. Everything was too absurd otherwise. After all, how could memory betray you when it was needed most? When it was only thing you now had to show for all you once had? Or, more precisely, for all that you once had taken for granted. . ?
With utter certainty, she knew that she would never forget what they had shared — perhaps if her mind itself went, fine, that was her one concession on this point. If she no longer recognized even herself, then, yes, that might be the day she forgot him, too.
While such thoughts occupied her, at times bitter, at times self-pitying, the sympathetic souls that had known the two of them together journeyed to her to express their condolences. They formed a procession whose end she came to doubt; and then she realized when it would arrive: when they found another, fresher grief to attend to.
We heard news of his passing, they would say. We are so sorry.
Occasionally they would offer shared memories to her, delivering evidence they thought would comfort her in some obscure way. As if providing an outside validation that she should welcome: you see, he really was as good as you thought he was and even
you see, he really is worth all this fuss. All this grief.
Their hearts were in the right place — one had to assume that, or else send them packing — but at a certain point she started to feel that she could no longer bear such unsolicited kindness.
The worst occurred when these well-intentioned spirits would try an empathetic approach.
You know, it seems like only yesterday that I lost my dearest. Since he passed over.
It was then that she realized she how much she detested the phrase “passing over.” As if those to whom it applied could pass back again. As if her loss was something that had happened casually, in passing. No, she wanted to shout, the ones who leave us don’t “pass” anywhere.
Rather, they were simply gone: unreachable, irretrievable, unknowable.
And then there was her rage at God. She knew it was a cliché, but she couldn’t help what she felt. The shape her complaint took was you gave me something that made me so happy, that changed my very existence — and then you have the nerve to take it away?
This lament, too, she was aware, had been shared by millions before her.
But still, had that been too much to hope for, a dollop of happiness in what was otherwise (she could stand being frank now) a fairly bland existence? Pleasant yes, but shot through with banality, too, now that passion had been stripped from it.
Of course there were ones who, instead of feeling anger at God, took solace in the idea that He had fashioned a benevolent, albeit invisible, purpose behind all the world’s grief. There were many theories along this line — that loved ones would meet on “the other side” and all that nonsense — but there was never any hard proof. No, these were tales for those who were scared of the dark, and who saw it in constant encroachment about them.
Actually, she was one of those timid spirits now. Terrified, not so much of darkness, but of facing it alone. With him, it had seemed almost possible that she might be able to stand the prospect of her own departure some day. . .
He had been friend, child, and husband to her. There were no distinctions. Not her “better half” because with them there had been no “halves.” There had been only a meshing, and a union, and then finally a rending and a scar.
Many claimed that those like him had gone to a better place, where there were different pleasures, ones she could not imagine from this dimension. She had once even heard someone describe all souls as “energy beings,” and if that were true, then maybe anything was possible. Still, the fantasy of a reunion one day in the future — that just seemed like wishful thinking of the most childish sort. It was too much to hope for, and yet it was the only thing that really counted. What did it matter if there were some unimaginable paradise of new sensations awaiting her? If it included an eternity of separation from him, it could not be other than hellish.
Yet oddly, the prospect of that nebulous afterworld came to bring a measure of relief when her sorrow was most acute.
And so she found herself, as time passed, able to cope with her grief only by, in essence, grieving for herself in advance. She consoled herself with the notion that there would be no more pain when there was no more she.
The end comes for everyone.
It was a bitter notion to take comfort from — the knowledge that, one day she, too, would leave this place of peace, and take on a human body. One day, she, too, would be “born,” and live in a world of “the flesh” and “the senses,” as the learned termed these hypothetical components of the next phase in their migration.
No, there was no doubt about it: it was a horrible fate for any soul.
For all souls.
Of the many stories about the spirit world I’ve read, they always seem to take our everyday perspective as the starting point for issues such as transmigration, incarnation, and the like. For me, that’s like assuming your train station is the first one on the line even when you see a hint of the tracks stretching into the mist on both sides. The impetus for this story was to see what kind of emotional and metaphysical questions could be explored by planting the narrative stakes in the ground somewhere far back in those mists.
So quickly the challenge of the story was to keep it metaphysically-oriented rather than let it become a conventional fantasy piece. While this results in a more abstract setting (and perhaps a more bland tone overall) than in my other fiction, I was both excited to meet the challenge and gratified to learn that RTV is open to such experimentation.
Although I’ve heard people say this is a sad story, it was not intended as such — whatever sadness remains by the last line is meant to be mitigated by the distance the reader is supposed to feel from the point-of-view character: her nightmarish future is the one we not simply inhabit, but cling to.
©2010 by Peter Gutierrez.
Deep within the archives… which continue to grow.
RTV ran into Jess on Twitter, she’s quite wacky and a whole lot of fun. She loved the idea of an excerpt of the brand new novel, the latest book in her “Others” series, entitled Forsaken by the Others. Her promotional formatting was so cool we decided to go with it, adjusted slightly to fit. Enjoy, and go buy your copy now.
Jess Haines writes about furred and fanged things that go bump in the night. Best known for the H&W Investigations urban fantasy series, she’s been writing since she was a teenager and first published in 2010. Her latest release is Forsaken by the Others (Kensington/Zebra; July 2, 2013).
119 West 40 Street 21st floor
New York, NY 10018
Forsaken by the Others Back Cover Copy
The Others — vampires, werewolves, things that go chomp in the night — don’t just live in nightmares anymore. They’ve joined with the mortal world. And for private investigator Shiarra Waynest, that means mayhem . . .
Have a one night stand with a vampire, and you can end up paying for it for eternity. P.I. Shiarra Waynest, an expert on the Others, knows that better than most. Yet here she is, waking up beside charismatic vamp Alec Royce with an aching head . . . and neck. Luckily, Shia has the perfect excuse for getting out of town — namely, a couple of irate East Coast werewolf packs who’d like to turn her into a chew toy.
On Royce’s suggestion, Shia temporarily relocates to Los Angeles. But something is rotten — literally &mdashp; in the state of California, where local vampires are being attacked by zombies. Who could be powerful enough to control them–and reckless enough to target the immortal? Following the trail will lead Shia to a terrifying truth, and to an ancient enemy with a personal grudge. . .
Publisher: Kensington / Imprint: Zebra
Format(s): Paperback / E-book
Forsaken by the Others — book excerpt — by Jess Haines
“You two are insane. First the Goliaths, now that ridiculous pretender? Do you have any idea how crazy that guy is?”
Sara huffed, folding her arms. “Do you have any idea how crazy it is that we’re being asked to find where this necromancer is hiding without the help of police or other authorities to track him down? Stop judging our methods and let us do our job. You have a better idea of where we should be looking? We’re all ears.”
Trinity shook her head and started driving, not saying a thing.
Even if she was of the opinion that Thrane was nuttier than a fruitcake, it didn’t deter me. I had been dealing with more than enough weirdoes since I had arrived in Los Angeles. The addition of a few more didn’t seem like such a big deal.
Clyde might have thought he was the Master of All He Sees and Then Some, but the reality was that he couldn’t be everywhere at once, and to have a slice of land in the middle of what was supposed to be his Valley — territory — whatever — belonging to another vampire meant that he didn’t have as tight a grip on his holdings as he would have liked us to believe. Plus, three of the attacks had taken place on the borders between Thrane’s and Clyde’s territories, which meant that Thrane might know which way the necromancer went, might have seen something useful, or maybe would be willing to help us if he was also losing people.
Granted, now that we’d stopped in front of what — according to Trinity’s sarcastic explanation — was supposed to be Thrane’s base of operation, I could see why Clyde had appeared more annoyed than worried when he mentioned the “Master” of this borderline slice of land between Burbank and Glendale. The neighborhood, though not as nice as the one where Gavin lived, or as nasty as that armpit in Sun Valley we’d stopped in, wasn’t real impressive, mainly small businesses sandwiched between apartments and old houses.
At first I thought Trinity must have been kidding. The place was nothing more than a run-down sports bar with dirty windows that obscured a dimly seen television mounted in the corner. There was a sign above the nearly deserted bar proclaiming they had a weeknight special on Budweiser and hot wings. Tucked away in a dark alcove on the side of the building was the door Trinity said led to Thrane’s hideout. It was so narrow that I would have mistaken it for the location of the building’s circuit breakers.
Sara and I approached the place together, wrinkling our noses at the padlocked dumpster only a few yards away from the entrance to the vampire’s hideout. This was nothing like the splendor I had seen vampires use to sequester themselves from humanity’s prying eyes. If I hadn’t gotten a nod in the affirmative when I gave Trinity a dubious look over my shoulder, I never would have guessed that Thrane lived here. It was either a terrifically clever front, or terribly sad.
Sara stepped aside, and I knocked lightly on the door. A muffled voice came from the other side. “Password?”
Nonplussed, I looked at Trinity, who shrugged. Confused, I said, “I . . . don’t know?”
The door — was that piled-on insulation held on with duct tape? — opened, revealing a guy wearing track pants and a T-shirt slung over his shoulder. His skin was frightfully pale, and his hairy stomach protruded a bit over the top of his pants. He grinned broadly at Sara and me, flashing fangs. “Ladies, ladies, ladies! Call me Mac-daddy.” He paused, then added thoughtfully, “Actually, if you’re here to see me, you can call me anything you want.”
Sara and I both hastily stepped back — probably a bit too quickly, considering the tragic look of disappointment that crossed his features — before a pleasant, feminine voice called out from the shadows behind him. “Mac, who is it? Get out of the damn door and let them in.”
He got out of the way, disappearing into the dark. This was no more reassuring. Particularly as a third voice called out to us, this time another woman. “Are you just going to stand there all night?”
Terrifying as the thought of walking into that dark pit was, we weren’t going to accomplish anything by standing in the alley. Sara fell into step behind me as I marched with what I hoped was a brave and dangerous expression into the vampire den.
If I’d thought the outside was bad, the inside was . . . bad.
A set of narrow, rickety wooden stairs sans railing led down about four feet into a cramped, narrow basement with a high ceiling. Fluorescent track lighting made everything take on a sickly, dim color. Someone had salvaged a large strip of puke-orange shag carpeting and laid it down on the bare concrete in the center of the room. The walls were beige and covered with posters, and there was a bulletin board that, at a glance, contained charming announcements like “Jason is a fag” scrawled in heavy permanent marker on scraps of paper between the job postings and concert flyers.
Though my own furniture in my apartment — cripes, did I still have anything of my own anymore? My landlord had probably dumped all of my crap out on the street by now. Ahem, back on track — though my own furniture was or had been of Ikea-level quality, it looked like the mismatched couches and chairs in this sprawling basement lair had gone a few rounds with their local Salvation Army store.
The vampires didn’t look much better.
Some wore jeans and T-shirts. Some wore stuff straight out of a goth fashion magazine. One wore a pizza delivery shirt and cap, obviously either just coming from or leaving for a job.
Now I understood why Clyde was so obviously disgusted when he mentioned this Jimmy guy.
“Mr. Thrane?” I asked the room in general, not sure which one of the vampires to address. There wasn’t much of a structure to this pack of misfits that I could pick up. The stuffy, musty scent and strangely echoic quality of the space, added to the cold due to the lack of body heat from the vampires, gave the impression of being at the bottom of a grave.
A frat boy’s grave, maybe, but a grave, nonetheless.
The vampire lounging on the couch in the back nodded, touching the brim of his top hat. It was the only article of clothing he had on that was in good repair. Once he moved his hand, I could see a tattoo or something under one of his eyes.
“Ma’am. Might I ask why you’re calling on us this fine evening?”
Well, at least he was polite. Sara, who had the look of rigid, forced politeness she often assumed when dealing with a client who made her uncomfortable, introduced us.
“Mr. Thrane, my name is Sara Halloway, and this is Shiarra Waynest, my business partner. We’re private investigators. We wanted to ask for your help and see if you might have any information that might lead us to a resolution of some difficulties for a client.”
“Wow, right on. Real private investigators?”
I glanced at the guy who had earlier been identified as Mac, giving him a look. He shrugged and grinned.
Thrane was not as impressed. “Fascinating. Really. But I would very much like to know how you two have heard of me and what you think I can do for you.”
My turn to field the questions. “We heard that you’re the ruler of some territory outside of Clyde Seabreeze’s control. If that’s the case, you may have information about who has been behind the murders and disappearances of Clyde’s people.”
Thrane’s reaction was not what I had expected. At all. His fangs extended, and his eyes blazed red as he shot to his feet, pointing an accusatory finger at me. “You’re working for that . . . that . . . usurper?”
Sara grabbed my arm so tightly, it went numb. The other vampires didn’t seem very impressed, watching us with bored expressions. Once my heart crawled out of my throat and closer to the region it belonged, I squeaked out a few words.
“We — uh . . . yes?”
As suddenly as the anger had risen, it was gone. He blinked, and his eyes were normal again, the fangs retracting as he airily waved a hand at us. “Poofty von Metrofaggen can go find someone else to play his games. I’m not interested.”
“Jimmy,” one of the girls stage-whispered, her eyes comically huge in her heart-shaped face framed by inky black curls, “Jimmy, those are humans.”
I have never seen so many vampires so intensely interested in me at the same time. Talk about unnerving. Every one of them went deathly still — and I mean deathly — as their unblinking eyes locked onto us. It was like being stared at by a room full of china dolls. Hungry china dolls that are thinking about eating your face.
©2013 by Jess Haines. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. See above for information on how to find your copy, check local booksellers, or go to Amazon.com (e.g.). We will endeavor to supply links on the rebound.
I didn’t get to go to PantheaCon last year, for the first time in the past few years; however, I did get to hear from friends about their experiences throughout the weekend as they blogged and tweeted. And so it was that I heard about the CAYA1 Coven’s Lilith ritual and the kerfuffle surrounding it. In a nutshell, the description didn’t make it clear that the ritual was meant only for women, and according to the ritual organizers, only cisgender (as opposed to transgender) women. Several people, both men and trans women, were turned away at the door with much hurt and confusion.
I’ve been watching the discussion since then, though it seems to have died down with not much in the way of a resolution. There’s been a lot of talk about what criteria are required for someone to be considered a man or a woman, whether it has to do with the genetics or the genitals or with self-identity. And there’s been debate over whether woman-only space should be allowed when it only allows cisgender women, and whether transgender women are spiritually women or men according to Dianic standards.
This, of course, brings up the issue of the sex and gender of the deities. Most Dianics only view the Divine as female, or if there is a male deity, he is considered lesser than the Goddess. In a broader context, there has always been discussion in the pagan community, at least as long as I’ve been in it (since the mid-1990s) about what constitutes the bailiwicks of male and female deities, as well as gender and sex roles among neopagans themselves.
One of the most frustrating arguments, as far as I’m concerned, is the assertion that the female/male split is “natural,” and since many forms of paganisms are nature-based, the deities ought therefore to reflect “true nature.” We make the gods in our own image. Our religions are anthropocentric. This isn’t surprising. Spirituality is a form of meaning-making, and we find meaning in that which we can relate to. So our deities are largely humanoid, and mostly sexually dimorphic (being either male or female).
But is this really what’s most natural? If we take a survey of individual living beings, from the tiniest protists to the great blue whale, thee sexually dimorphic beings are actually outnumbered by those that reproduce hermaphroditically (like the earthworm) or asexually (amoebas). Because almost all of these beings are either invertebrate animals which barely get a mention in totemism and animal magic, or plants which are often seen only as spell components, they’re not given nearly as much consideration. And they resemble us a lot less than cattle, wolves, eagles, or any of a number of charismatic megafauna that are often venerated by pagans of various sorts.
Yet there are more living beings on Earth that are not sexually dimorphic than those that are. So wouldn’t it stand to reason that the “most natural” manifestation of the Divine wouldn’t be male or female, but a being that reproduces by splitting itself in two? Furthermore, this sort of splitting is reflected in our very own cells’ mitosis/cytokinesis and meiosis (the two forms of cellular division). So we even have the template for that crucial form of reproduction within our bodies on a microscopic scale.
If we’re going to insist that the deities of nature must reflect common qualities in nature, then we need to keep in mind that we human beings are not necessarily the center of that universe, as much as we might like to pretend otherwise. From an evolutionary standpoint, while we might have wrought a lot of change on this world with our big brains, advanced vocal apparati, and opposable thumbs, these remain the adaptations we developed through generations of natural selection, the process by which all beings have become what they are today — and will become through future generations. Which means that we’re really not that special — certainly not special enough to impose our particular brand of reproduction on the Divine as a whole.2
Conversely, those big brains of ours help us to move past the less desirable elements of our instinctual heritage. While we may have an instinctual response to a stimulus that involves violence, for example, if violence is not the appropriate response we can override the instinct with reason and free will, again using the unique properties of our brains. In the same way, whereas we can look at our physical bodies, how the individual’s genitalia may be formed, the chromosomes in the DNA, and so forth, we are also capable of transcending a strict sex/gender corollary. This may be something as simple as rejecting tertiary sex characteristics “traditionally” associated with male and female primary and secondary sex characteristics, and instead embracing whatever proportion of feminine and/or masculine properties one likes. However, it may also be identifying fully as one sex while possessing the genetic material of the other. And this isn’t even taking intersex people, those born with genitalia that are not strictly male or female (and sometimes divergent chromosomes as well), into account.
This is all to say that just because historically people have generally seen the Divine as male or female doesn’t mean that this is the automatic most natural way, especially when one purports to follow a nature spirituality. If you’re going to worship nature manifest in archetypal beings, and especially if you’re going to feel compelled to impose your dogma on others, then be consistent about it. And if you continue in your inconsistencies, then be prepared to defend your chauvinism.3
- Ironically, this stands for “Come As You Are”.
- And there are plenty of phenomena in nature which do not reproduce—stones may fragment, but they are not properly reproducing.
- I asked my partner whether there were any Lovecraftian deity-forms that were known to reproduce asexually, since I couldn’t think of any amoeba gods, and the Elder Gods were about my best shot for having among their ranks some amorphous being of about deity status that split itself off every so often. While there wasn’t an exact match, I for one welcome our new Shoggoth gods and their unspeakable eldritch powers of regeneration.
Lupa is the author of Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone: A Primal Guide to Animal Magic, A Field Guide to Otherkin, and co-author of Kink Magic, among other works. You can read her blog at http://therioshamanism.com and see her website at http://www.thegreenwolf.com.
Great Mother of the Sun
Descend into the arms of the earth
Winged Goddess of Balance
Come unto us who cry out to you
For justice and truth and strength
For we are struggling with a disease
That seems infinite and powerful.
We call upon you to help balance the energies
That man has unleashed upon the earth
We call upon you to bring the truth
That humans will awake to their folly
We call upon you to give us strength
To persevere on all levels in healing the earth
In organizing, in uniting
And in bringing a halt to her destruction!
The black free-standing feather of Maat
The crystal star gleaming within
The outpouring of interstellar energies
Flowing and snaking through the earth
Filling every living thing
With the will toward harmony
We invoke the point of equilibrium
The force of momentum,
Gravity and electron-spin resonance
Filling us with the song
We invoke the law of the universe
The innate delicate stasis-in-flow
That governs all things
May we channel this energy in our work
May we be a conduit of the black flame of justice
And the silence of truth-in-action
May we be unified with all living beings
Through the breath of Maat
And may her heart-beat fill our ears
As the sound of a singing healed planet!
Mother of infinity
Goddess who guides the Sun
And all the ever-moving stars
Guide us now in our hour of need!
Embrace us that we may walk the tightrope
Of species and planetary survival.
Magnify the conscious, the inner voice
Of every human being
And every society
Reveal to them the horror
The sickness and the evil
That exists in the possible future
Of a ruined planet
Show them the suicidal path
That we are blindly treading
Heedlessly tossing poisons and garbage as we go
Show them the twisted result
Of what we are leaving
The toxic seas
The ravaged land
The silent animals. . .
Wake them up to the horror
They are sleeping amidst!
With your lightening gaze
With your beating wings
With your spatial winds
That they may see and realize
What they are doing
Before it is too late !
May we all undo that which has been done
Before it is too late
May the natural balance of the earth
Before it is too late!
Great cosmic Mother
May it be so.
We invoke the black haired Goddess
Who balances the souls of all beings
Who, weighed with the heart,
Reveals all things.
May we be so weighed
And found noble.
May we enter the abode of Amenta
May we enter the chamber of truth
And stand before the great power of justice
Maat, crowned with the feather
Reveal yourself in all your manifestations
Come as a black child of mirth
Dancing and singing the balance
Of the earth
Come as the great Mother
Covered with constellations
Giving birth to the balance
Of the earth
We call you
We warriors who strive for the earth
As Maut, the vulture
Crowned with the moon
With the red eyes of judgment
And the claws of retribution
Of an angry and injured earth!
We call forth the center of truth and justice
From within and without
We name this power Maat
And we manifest it here and now
As knowledge, will and action
In service of the planet Earth.
Through the strength and energy of our arms
May the balance of Maat
Through the clarity of our minds and loins
May the balance of Maat
Through the black flame of justice in our hearts
May the balance of Maat
A ka dua!
©2010 by Aion131.
Edited by Sheta Kaey
Forgotten over the years
Pushed to the back of minds weighed down with mundane concerns
He waits in solitude for the day
When someone may remember, and keep him company
A chill wind blows from the north
Reminding one who lives along the shore
Of someone she held dear in time long past
Yet the thought is more a whisper than a shout
He feels the pain of being a promise broken
Yet still he abides behind the veil
A soul immortal cannot die
But can be buried by the wretchedness of anguish borne alone
He looks down upon the sea below his vantage point
And longs to be free of his boundless solitude
He extends his arms, and falling forward from the height, joins the sea birds in their flight
Twisting, wheeling, unafraid
The soul immortal cannot die
He touches surf and is drawn beneath the waves
The sun reflects off the surface of the water,
Revealing a dark, familiar shape below
Along another shore in a world far away
A woman feels a pang within her breast
She is weary and wishes she could sleep forever
And walk the shores of an eternal dream
Something lies beneath the surface of her memories
A treasure that she lost long ago
Someone who understood the unflagging sorrow
A breath inhaled and exhaled, lost forever
She will reach beyond the veil this night
And take the hand of the one who waits
Forgotten to the conscious mind that buries dreams beneath stacks of unpaid bills
Burdened by joys thrust aside in favor of unending toil
Some things cannot be explained away by logic
Tested away by science, prayed away by dogmatic religion
She has labored long and hard for futile gain
Happiness has waited long enough
Tonight she shall sail away to join the one who waits beneath the waves
To dwell on shadowed shores where the blinding light of the orthodoxy never reaches
She is weary of a world wherein to survive she must forget what she holds most dear
Tonight is her last night among the striving masses
Tonight at last he rises from the sea
To dwell forever in the shadows of a land
Created by the dark dreams of souls misunderstood
Never again shall he abide alone
For at last he has someone to dream with
Rose LeMort is a clairvoyant and fiction author. Her first published work will be a revision of the 2007 novel, Eternal Death I: Lost Beneath the Surface, which was originally penned by Lily Strange. The revised novel is due out by the end of this year. Rose works in tandem with her spirit companion, Kai Rikard. For more information, visit Rose’s website or her Facebook page.
©2010 by Rose LeMort.
on an Easter long ago
the Dark Night of the Soul
the self crucified on the cross of Ego
“Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?”
It is Finished!
the stone, Restriction,
rolled away by Will
light beamed forth
it was I who arose
bearing the Light
no grace, no guilt,
no sin, no god in sight
stepping forth into the Day
created by the spark within
shedding rays of Light, Life, Love and Liberty
©2010 by Shawn Gray.
At the most recent Pantheacon, I was honored to participate in a panel of authors who contributed to Immanion Press’s recent Women’s Voices in Magick anthology. It was a real treat to be able to take part in a lively conversation on the state of contemporary occultism with women from a diverse range of magical communities. Celtic Reconstruction, Thelema, Chaos and experimental magic were among the stated approaches used by such notable occultists as Erynn Rowan Laurie, Kat Sanborn, Amy Hale, Lupa, and Jaymi Elford. Despite the disparity in our training and in the communities and Gods we choose to serve, there were a number of common threads in our discussion that I feel shed light on compelling issues of contemporary magical practice. Since taking part, the issues have been much on my mind, and I present some of my thoughts on these topics as well.
Heterosexism, Privilege and Magick
All of us affirmed our affection and respect for our male colleagues, mentors and teachers. We expressed gratitude for their guidance and friendship. But in examining our personal experiences with sexism and heterosexism, it was starkly obvious to all of us that neopagan culture was not immune from either of these ills. It has manifested for us, both subtly and not so subtly. All of us have had to deal with criticisms that our hobbies, interests and life’s work, were not “natural” for women. These are not the attitudes of conservative family members, but rather those of our contemporaries and magical peers. We were told that there was something exotic, unusual, or just flat wrong about a woman Thelemite or Chaote. In those circles, we were either tokens or dupes. We’ve been told that we were doing our magick “incorrectly.” One woman spoke about how she and the other women who founded their tradition now feel pushed aside by male colleagues who monopolize conversations and blog threads with arguments among themselves, while ignoring female voices. Many of us spoke about feeling the hostility of male colleagues in traditionally male occult societies, and feeling distrust from other women occultists for working magick outside of a traditionally female context (Wicca, witchcraft, etc).
We all agreed that we had felt, at one time or another, reduced to sexual and biological objects. We were made to feel, by male colleagues, that our function in our spiritual community was to be sexually attractive and available to men, and if we weren’t, this was interpreted as somehow hostile on our part. To encounter this type of attitude in what we had hoped would be safe magical space is disheartening. What made it worse was the not so subtle message in many magical communities that women’s secondary status is “natural,” that it is somehow “natural” for us as women to serve men in all things, because that’s “how it is in nature.” In addition, this “natural” heterosexism asserts itself as phobic against homosexuality and transgender. “Nature” is used as a litmus test for what is “natural” in human sexuality; therefore, heterosex is privileged above all other sexual expressions for being more “natural.”
This construction of human sexuality is faulty and reductionist, and owes far more to the hidebound moralities of our dominant / dominator paradigm than to reproductive biology. This model is limited because it’s couched in polar binaries only, and even in context of so-called “fertility religion,” it provides an incomplete vision of the natural world as a source of gnosis and connection. The mysteries of egg and sperm, of seed and pollen, are ever present. They are primal forces, the engine that runs our planet. These energies are the forces of creation and destruction that we all engage in, everyday, with every breath: they are not exclusive to one sex, gender or orientation. The deepest human need has ever been to understand these forces, and the religions of these mysteries have ever tried to explain the infinite to finite human minds. The male-female heterosexual current is only one iteration of this primal energy. It’s a powerful one, and it is self-evident. From an evolutionary standpoint it has been wildly successful because it yields the greatest genetic diversity. But it is only one of many currents that energize our planet, our natural world, and in no way does it demand the type of oppressive constructions that culture puts on gender and sexual orientation. These are not natural; these are merely prejudice.
It is one of the more demoralizing tricks of the dominator paradigm to take the entire range of human enterprise, experience and emotional potential, divide it in half, give half to one gender and half to the other, and then expect whole, integrated adults to emerge. The most ancient, and truest, magical injunction remains: Know thyself. We cannot be fully human if we accept the limitations of dominator gender roles without question or complaint. As women magicians, we all had felt at some time pressured to abandon our magick in order to conform to someone else’s vision of what a woman should be. Rejecting those values is part of our commitment to our magical work.
Sex, Pleasure and Consequence
Despite having overcome our dominant culture’s sex-negative programming, we all felt that we had all been sexually objectified at one time or another. In many ways, the pro-sexual attitudes and relaxed sexual mores of Neopaganism have been just as limiting to women occultists as the anti-sexual stances against which many occultists have rebelled. Again, this is a reductionist attitude in which women are relegated to only those roles which serve men. Promoting sexual “liberation” for women serves heterosexual male interests, by encouraging and privileging (pressuring) women to be sexually available. This also manifests in how sexual or love Goddesses are lavished with devotion and reverence, while other Goddesses (mothers, crones, virgins, warriors) are given short-shrift except in women-only ritual contexts (Dianic Wicca, Goddess worship, etc).
The reclamation of sexuality as a sacred act of pleasure and connection is a central tenet of many occult traditions. Certainly for me, who follows the path of the Qadesha (sacred harlot), sexuality acts as both a sacred mystery and spiritual practice. Sexual pleasure can be a conduit for gnosis and connection with our most sacred selves and deity. But often the hedonism of Neopaganism frames sexuality as a purely physical pursuit. It sets up sexual pleasure much as the dominant paradigm does, as a commodity, something superficial, available upon demand, and having no consequence. (This is why the dominant paradigm really has no interest in what women occultists are saying. The vision of a sacred sexuality that we espouse cannot be sold to us, nor can it be purchased from us. Therefore, it really has no assigned value in the larger culture.)
The lie about this reductionist vision of sexuality is that sex is reduced to something inconsequential and tame, and it absolutely isn’t. Sex is full of peril: the peril of connection, of vulnerability, of the very real life and death consequences of . . . life and death. We as human beings have by and large removed procreation from a direct line to reproduction, and medical technology has mitigated much of the risk of childbearing. But those risks, that peril, have been part of human sexuality from the beginning and are encoded deeply within us. (Could the intensity of sexual pleasure be evolutionary coded, in order to offset the pain, danger and risk of childbearing?) Sexuality is more than just “scratching the bunny itch” and a sexual philosophy that diminishes that fact is ultimately false. Sometimes this fact is lost in the hedonism.
An example of this is a Beltane ritual I attended years ago, while I was quite pregnant. Our hosts were gracious, their home and grounds lovely and private, the ritual was beautifully executed. But I became profoundly uncomfortable by the “sermonette” in which our priest discussed the “universal” sexual dynamic of the female enticing the male to chase her till she catches him, which is present in the mating habits of all animals everywhere all the time. I found this fairly reactionary, of course, but as the evening wore on, the vibe became even more sexual as folks got flirty, then lascivious. As it was Beltane, it was considered perfectly appropriate. But once the vibe became licentious, I found myself pointedly ignored. My pregnant state put me outside the “fun and games” — I was no longer sexually available or accessible; I was “spoken for,” not by a husband, but by my unborn child.
While it may seem intuitive to consider a pregnant woman sexually unavailable, I don’t feel it was respect for my relationship status that had this effect. I believe I was ignored because I was a reminder of an aspect of sexuality at odds with the vision of the no-strings, sport-sex that was being celebrated that night. The risks, perils and consequences of sex can transcend the momentary pleasure we are driven to experience, and I was a very present reminder of those consequences. It also hints at old concepts of a divided female sexuality, in which the sexual is degraded as selfish and debauched, and the mother is admired as purely spiritual and selfless, almost virginal. This is ironic, of course, in that the only way to achieve becoming a mother is through that nasty sex. It’s this type of cognitive dissonance that keeps women occultists and witches from feeling fully empowered in magical community. The new boss looks remarkably like the old one.
Women’s Space or Ghetto?
With so many magical spaces and communities being so hostile, what spaces can we as women occultists create? This was a conflict we had all had: finding that the magical communities and work that we were most attracted to, were not necessarily welcoming to us. Specifically, our male colleagues were hostile to our participation, and demanded that we conform to perceived “male” standards of practice and conduct. Even the magical spaces that we and other women created, we could be displaced out of by our male colleagues taking control of the intellectual space. This type of dynamic happens both online and in person. As the group space becomes fractious or argumentative (as will happen when fine points of doctrine are debated endlessly, or when individuals assert their authority or their place in hierarchy), women tend to feel silenced — they do not wish to step into the fray, and feel ignored when they try to redirect the conversation. As a result, many women occultists feel compelled to go “underground,” to create a parallel conversation among themselves only, in order to speak more freely and push forward their own work.
There are benefits and liabilities to this approach. Certainly, this type of woman-only space has been vital in fostering the work of countless women magicians, and is at the core of feminist activism and Goddess spirituality. Its value, its necessity, to the women who feel silenced outside this space, is incalculable. However, by not speaking outside these safe spaces, female voices become more absent where they need most to be heard. These spaces can become ghettos, where women’s creative expression is tolerated at the same time it is barred from the more prominent position in culture that it deserves.
The challenge for all of us — as magicians, as conscious individuals — is to continue to create the work that is sustaining to us and supportive our communities. The stakes are incredibly high — we are all of us engaged in creating culture that is healthy, sustainable and flourishing. This work of generating culture is now inextricably linked to our survival as a species. We have to work together, and seek connection, and look beyond the minute differences that keep us isolated.
©2010 by Leni Hester.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
This is the first in a series of articles in my column “Faith and Healing in Paganism.” I must say that I am eager to see where the discussion will go, and I hope you can share some of my excitement along the way.
The focus of this column will be on healing. The advantage of this focus is that it allows for articles on healing, pagan and comparative religious experiences, and cross-cultural perspectives on many pagan and magical practices. My specific approach as a healer is usually embodiment, or the experience of a person being inside their body, rather than being “in their head.” I am looking forward, in future posts, to writing on aspects of healing that seem to be problematic, but because of the larger debates going on, it is probably important to start with “faith” as a topic.
I feel some trepidation using the word “faith” in a pagan context. Certainly, I am unwilling to use it unexamined and undefined. That, then, will be the purpose of this first column: to look at the meaning of faith as a basic human experience of the numinous, and to look at what other meanings have been added to it, so that they can be stripped away, allowing the flowering of something that is more wholly pagan. In discussing faith in a pagan context, it will be critical to cut the core idea away from many of its associations and, in the long run, pagans will need to redefine “faith” to match pagan cosmology and theology.
Faith does not mean what we think it means.
An examination of the meaning of faith is, I believe, timely. In the news media, in current books and magazines, and on the internet, there are ongoing discussions of the meaning and importance of faith. The many authors all have different meanings for the word. Some imply belief alone, some mean unquestioning belief in a religious context, and others hold it to be an irrational belief in a system opposed to humanist rationality. While these may all agree with one another on some points, none of them reach to the core of the idea, or more accurately, the core of the experience of faith.
Faith is associated with the dominant monotheistic religions, as well as with “blind” belief. Just this week, as I was writing, Newsweek (February 22, 2010 edition) had two discussions about religion: one about Moderate Islam, and the other about the debates around teaching religion at Harvard. The cultural pitfalls that surround discussing religion and faith, the social dangers of disagreeing with someone else’s protestations of faith, and the general humanist vs. religious aspects of faith are all apparent parts of the cultural landscape. In short, everyone is talking about faith.
“Faith” is a dirty word in some circles, even, or especially, pagan circles. Yet at the same time, a religion free of “faith” would be a hollow thing. I believe that pagans should come to their own understanding of what faith is, recognizing the differences and similarities of their experiences to those of other religions. Faith is what happens to the human mind when it is confronted with spiritual presences that are vastly greater than us. For pagans, however, that is not some distant, solitary God. In my experience, there is an immanence to our spirituality, the awareness of the spirit in all things. This “spirit” is not somehow separate and directing, but interwoven and integral with the world. For pagans, such experience is not tied to removal from the world we live in, but rather it ties us more closely to this world. The clear experience of the “numinous other” does not have to happen only in some distant Heaven, but is just as valid as we stand here on the Earth.
Faith has come to mean many things, mostly as a result of our cultural exposure to Western Christianity. What has happened is that the simple, unclouded experience we could call faith has been redefined and informed by two thousand years of tradition based on different underlying assumptions of the universe — ones that, as pagans, we categorically reject. Perhaps the most important of these is the belief that the world of the spirit is remote, and somehow greater in power than the world in which we live. To hold the earth as sacred disrupts this separation; to hold the earth as inherently and simultaneously physical and spiritual is to begin to recognize that these divisions are not “outside” of us but “inside.” At the same time, as members of our culture, these are mental associations that we often unthinkingly accept. They are simply part of the way our culture and language are “shaped.”
For example, I would like to critique the idea that faith and belief are synonymous. This suggestion is not true, at least not as I am going to define faith below. Faith is a spiritual experience which can lead to belief, but it is not the same thing. Culturally, faith has come to mean “unquestioning belief.” Let’s look at the simple sentence, “I have faith in Sarah.” What does this generally mean? Well, if I read it, I would say that it means that the speaker has an unquestioning belief about Sarah. It probably does not mean that the speaker has had (or is having) a spiritual experience based on Sarah. This is a co-opting of the word “faith” for much more mundane reasons. It is this understanding of faith that I wish to escape. It might be easier, with all the associations that come with the word, to turn our backs on it, avoid it, and dodge the debate. That would mean that we have taken the easy way out. Instead, I suggest that we embrace the term, taking our place in the great intellectual and religious wrestling match that is going on around us. Some might argue that the specific word “faith” is not important. However, in the end, I cannot use a different term because faith is the best term for the experience I am discussing.
Faith is personal and spiritual.
What I would like to do now is momentarily step aside from the above debate and talk about what “faith” means, not so much as a word, but as an experience. Behind the many uses of the word, I would argue, there is a simple experience of the Divine. Faith begins in the moment that one travels the road from “I believe in higher powers” to “I have direct experience of higher powers.” That is what faith, as a word, means here. This is not about blind belief, but about beliefs that seem blind from the outside because the person who carries them has based them on experiences that are personal and cannot truly be shared. Faith is about experiences that are beyond words.
Faith is a spiritual experience. The ideas attached to that experience, and used to interpret it, are actually a mental filter between the numinous and the everyday mind. Religion, in the context of numinous experience, is not so much a set of beliefs as an interpretive construct for understanding that which is purely spiritual — or perhaps more accurately, outside of everyday experience. Traditionally, in Western culture, religion tries to codify, interpret, and pass down to future generations these valued experiences. What the culture is less good at, in my opinion, is accepting that these beliefs are interpretations of something that was intensely personal and contextual. The words, and not the spirit behind them, are recognized as sacred. It is in this way that faith and belief have become entangled.
Faith is a key part of human religious experience.
What is faith, then? If it is not a set of blind, non-rational beliefs that we pass from generation to generation, then what? Faith, as I mean it here, is directly analogous to the Christian “state of grace,” the direct communication with something (usually represented as a god-figure) that informs and directs our experiences in the world. That sounds pretty heady, doesn’t it? Well, it is. This is not an experience that belongs alone to the Christian Charismatics, or the Sufis of Islam. It is a basic experience that belongs to all people. The religions themselves, the sets of beliefs that we share, are ways that we use to find meaning and relate these experiences in words. Faith, itself, goes beyond words. Faith does not belong to the part of the human mind that uses words.
Years ago, when I was being social with friends, a woman turned to me and asked, “Do you believe in witchcraft?” I looked back at her and responded, “Do you believe in rocks?” “But rocks exist!” “Yes, exactly.” My point then, as now, is that only ideas and beliefs can be analyzed for truth value, and that once we have experienced something, it is not a matter of belief. Moments of faith, therefore, are transformative. They realign our perceptions of the world. To wax metaphorical, belief alone can do no more than sow the fields of faith. That is not to say that belief is without merit itself, but it does mean that belief is not faith. Belief, however, does allow us to interpret and ascribe meaning to our experiences of the other.
With our hands, we reach out and touch rocks, and we know that they exist. Certainly, we can argue the implications of the idea of “exist,” and say that the meaning of “exist” that we use in our culture is probably horribly wrong, but we have no doubt that they exist. We can say that they do not exist outside of our own minds, and while that might be true, we can nonetheless pick them up, admire them, or make houses from them. By placing existence in our minds, we have simply changed the value of the word “exist.”
With our spirits, we can reach out and touch the numinous. With our spirits, we can look around us and see the effects of that spirit within the world. This is not something that is solely the purview of certain religions, but is instead something that is a part of all humans. Insofar as we are in touch with our own spirits, we are aware of the spirits of others. This recognition of the spirits of others is called “compassion.” This compassion is in fact a key aspect of healing work. It is important in Christian and Muslim faith healing, it is important in such modalities as Reiki, and is important in the practices of Buddhism. I am suggesting that these religions are all pointing to the same experience: the awareness, by means of our own spirits, of the existence of the spirits of others. But, let me throw in a word of caution. Compassion is not simply “being nice.” Compassion is not a weakness. And compassion is a virtue, but not the only one.
Like compassion, faith is an opening of a part of the human spirit to the outside. As a healer, I would argue that the opening to faith is a valuable part of being a healthy human. Faith is as much a part of us as “instinct” or “being grounded” (a term which I will argue in a later column has two separate meanings, depending on context). Of course, while we might like to be paragons of virtue, the purpose of virtue is to have something for which to strive, not berate ourselves and others for not living up to our beliefs.
Pagans will need to redefine faith to match pagan cosmology and theology.
For faith to be a useful thing for pagans, we must reexamine the foundational ideas out of which all other notions grow. These foundations will be different from those of the monotheistic religions of the world, but not unrelated. Faith should be a part of pagan religion, as should belief, but it need not be the sole foundation.
For this, we must remove from the term a belief that faith alone is the cornerstone of religion. With all this talk of faith, it would be very easy to slip into a position that it is the core of religion. But for pagan religious experience, it is important to relegate faith to a place where it is balanced with other aspects. Faith can be a guide, but reason, compassion, and grounded experience of both our culture and the world at large must be balanced as well. Faith offers one kind of truth, but that truth should be recognized for its value without being placed on an untouchable pedestal. The beliefs that come from faith must be recognized as personal and contextual. The experiences can be powerful, but it is sheer hubris to believe that they are more “true” or more “valuable” than other kinds of knowledge.
Pagan faith lends itself to being integrated into the wider, global world, without leaving us helpless to act in it. Pagan religions are, by their nature and creed, more accepting of a wider world in which there is a polyvocalism, rather than a single voice of Truth. For this, we must focus on living in the world as it is, not as we believe it should be.
©2010 by Christopher Drysdale.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
She was a very old woman, about the age of Foure-score yeares, and had been a Witch for fiftie yeares. Shee dwelt in the Forrest of Pendle, a vast place, fitte for her profession: What shee committed in her time, no man knows. . . Shee was a generall agent for the Devill in all these partes: no man escaped her, or her Furies.
— Thomas Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the County of Lancaster, 1613
See us gathered here, three women stood at Richard Baldwin’s gate. I bide with my daughter, Liza of the squint-eye, and with my granddaughter, Alizon, just fifteen and dazzling as the noontide sun, so bright that she lights up the murk of my dim sight. Demdike, folk call me, after the dammed stream near my dwelling place where the farmers wash their sheep before shearing. When I was younger and stronger, I used to help with the sheepwash. Wasn’t afraid of the fiercest rams. I’d always had a way of gentling creatures by speaking to them low and soft. Though I’m old now, crabbed and near-blind, my memory is long as a midsummer’s day and with my inner eye, I see clear.
We three wait till Baldwin catches glimpse of us and out he storms. Through the clouded caul that age has cast over my eyes, I catch his form. Thin as a brittle dead stalk, he is, his face pinched, and he’s clad in the dour black weeds of a Puritan. Fancies himself a godly man, does our Dick Baldwin. A loud crack strikes the earth — it’s a horsewhip he carries. My daughter fair leaps as he lashes it against the drought-hard dirt.
“Whores and witches,” he rails, shrill enough to set the crows to flight. “Get out of my ground.”
Slashes of air hit my face as he brandishes his whip, seeking to strike fear into us, but it’s his terror I taste as I let go of Alizon’s guiding hand and step forward, firm and square on my rag-bundled feet. We’ve only come to claim what is ours by right.
“Whores and witches,” he taunts again, yelling with such bile that his spit sprays me. “I will burn the one of you and hang the other.”
He speaks to Liza and me, ignoring young Alizon, for he doesn’t trust himself to even look at this girl whose beauty and sore hunger would be enough to make him sink to his knobbly knees.
I take another step forward, forcing him to back away. The man’s a-fright that I’ll so much as breathe on him. “I care not for you,” I tell him. “Hang yourself.”
Our Master Baldwin will play the righteous churchman, but what I know of him would besmirch his good name forevermore. He can spout his psalms till he’s hoarse, but heaven’s gates will never open to him. I know this and he knows I know this, and for my knowing, he fears and hates me. Beneath his black clothes beats an even blacker heart. Hired my Liza to card wool, did Baldwin, and then refused to pay her. What’s more, our Liza has done much dearer things for him than carding. Puritan or no, he’s taken his pleasure of her and, lost and grieving her poor murdered husband, ten years dead, our Liza was soft enough to let him. Fool girl.
“Enough of this,” I say. “Liza carded your wool. Where’s her payment? We’re poor, hungry folk. Would you let us starve for your meanness?”
I speak in a low, warning tone, not unlike the growl of a dog before it bites. Man like him should know better than to cross the likes of me. Throughout Pendle Forest I’m known as a cunning woman and she who has the power to bless may also curse.
Our Mr. Baldwin blames me because his daughter Ellen is too poorly to rise from her bed. The girl was a pale, consumptive thing from the day she was born, never hale in all her nine years. Once he called on me to heal her. Mopped her brow, I did. Brewed her feverfew and lungwort, but still she ailed and shivered. Tried my best with her, but some who are sick cannot be mended. Yet Baldwin thinks I bewitched the lass out of malice. Why would I seek to harm a hair on the poor girl’s head when his other daughter, the one he won’t name or even look at, is my own youngest granddaughter, seven-year-old Jennet?
“Richard.” My Liza makes bold to step toward him. She stretches out a beseeching hand. “Have a heart. For our Jennet’s sake. We’ve nothing more to eat in the house.”
But he twists away from her in cold dread and still won’t pay her for her honest work, won’t grant us so much as a penny. So what can I do but promise that I’ll pray for him till he comes to be of a better mind? Soft under my breath, masked from his Puritan ears, I murmur the Latin refrains of the old religion. How my whispered words make him pale and quake — does he believe they will strike him dead? Off to his house he scarpers. Behind his bolted door he’ll cower till we’re well gone.
“Come, Gran.” Alizon takes my arm to lead me home. Can’t make my way round without her in this dark ebb of my years. But with my inner eye I see Tibb sat there on the drystone wall. Sun breaks through the clouds to golden-wash his guilesome face. Dick Baldwin would call him a devil, or even the Devil, but I know better. Tibb, his beautiful form invisible to all but me.
“Now I don’t generally stand by woe-working,” says my Tibb, stretching out his long legs. “But if you forespoke Master Baldwin, who could blame you, after all the ill he’s done to you and yours?” He cracks a smile. “Is revenge what you want?”
“No, Tibb. Only justice.” I speak with my inner voice that none but Tibb can hear. If Baldwin fell ill and died, what would happen to his lawful daughter, Ellen? Her mother’s long dead. Another poor lass to live off the alms of the parish. No, I’ll not have that burden on my soul.
“Justice!” Tibb laughs, then shakes his head. “Off the likes of Dick Baldwin? Oh, you do set your sights high.”
Tibb’s laughter makes the years melt away, drawing me back to the old days, when I could see far with my own two eyes and walk on my own two legs, with none to guide me.
By daylight gate I first saw him, the boy climbing out of the stone pit in Goldshaw. The sinking sun set his fair hair alight. Slender, he was, and so young and beautiful. Pure, too. No meanness on him. No spite or evil. I knew straight off that he wouldn’t spit at me for being a barefoot beggar woman. Wouldn’t curse at me or try to shove me into the ditch. There was something in his eyes — a gentleness, a knowing. When he looked at me, my hurting knees turned to butter. When he smiled, I melted to my core, my heart bumping and thumping till I fair fainted away. What would a lad like that want with a fifty-year-old widow like me?
The month of May, it was, but cold of an evening. His coat was half black, half brown. I thought to myself that he must be poor like me, left to stitch his clothes together from mismatched rags. He reached out his hand, as though making to greet an old friend.
“Elizabeth,” he said. “My own Bess.” The names by which I was known when a girl with a slender waist and strong legs and rippling chestnut hair. How did he know my true name? Even then I was known to most as Demdike. The boy smiled wide with clean white teeth, none of them missing, and his eyes had a devilish spark in them, as though I were still that young woman with skin like new milk.
“Well, well,” said I, for I was never one to stay silent for long. “You know my name, so you do. What’s yours then?”
“Tibb,” he said.
“Your family name.” I nodded to myself, though I knew of no Tibbs living anywhere in Pendle Forest. “But what of your Christian name?” After all, I thought, he knew me by mine, God only knew how.
He lifted his face to the red-glowing sky and laughed as the last of the sun sank behind Pendle Hill. Then I heard a noise behind me: the startled squawk of a pheasant taking flight. When I turned to face the boy again, he had vanished away. I looked up and down the lane, finding him nowhere. Couldn’t even trace his footprints in the muddy track. Did my mind fail me? Had that boy been real at all? This was when I grew afraid and went cold all over, as though frost had settled upon my skin.
First off, I told no one of Tibb. Who would have believed me when I could scarcely believe it myself? I’d no wish to make myself an even bigger laughingstock than I already was.
Ned Southerns, my husband, such as he was, had passed on just after our squint-eyed Liza was born, nineteen years ago. He blamed me for our daughter’s deformity because he thought I’d too much contact with beasts whilst I was carrying her. In my married years, I raised fine hens, even kept a nanny goat. There was another child, Christopher, three years older than Liza and not of my husband, but far and away from being the only bastard in Pendle Forest. The gentry and the yeomen bred as many ill-begotten babes as us poor folk, only they did a better job of covering it up. Liza, Kit, and I made our home in a crumbling old watchtower near the edge of Pendle Forest. More ancient than Adam, our tower was: too draughty for storing silage, but it did for us. Malkin Tower, it was called, and, as you’ll know, Malkin can mean either hare or slattern. What better place for me and my brood?
Still folk whispered that it seemed a curious thing indeed that one such as I should live in a tower built of stout stone with a firehouse boasting a proper hearth at its foot when many a poor widow made do with a one-room hovel with no hearth at all but only a fire pit in the bare earthen floor. In truth, my poor dead mother got the tower given her for her natural life — towers named after slatterns were meant to hide guilty secrets.
When my mam was young and comely, she’d served the Nowell family at Read Hall. Head ostler’s daughter, so she was, and she’d prospects and a modest dowry besides. But what did she do but catch the eye of Master Nowell’s son, then a lad of seventeen years? The Nowells were not an old family, as gentry went, nor half as grand as the Shuttleworths of Gawthorpe Hall or the de Lacys of Clitheroe. The Nowells’ fortunes had risen along with the sway of the new religion. Back when Old King Henry’s troops came to sack Whalley Abbey, the Nowells sent their men to help topple the ancient stone walls. King rewarded their loyalty by granting the Nowells a goodly portion of the abbey’s lands. One of Old Man Nowells’ sons went to faraway Cambridgeshire to make his name as a Puritan divine, or so I’d been told. Far and wide, the Nowells let it be known that they were godly folk. But even the pious are prey to youthful folly.
My mam, before her fall from grace, had been an upright girl, so the young Master Roger could hardly discard her as easy as he would some tavern maid. And that was why Mam was given Malkin Tower for the rest of her life on the condition that she never trouble the Nowells of Read Hall. Far enough from Read, it was, for them not to be bothered by the sight of her, but it was close enough to for them to keep watch of her, should she seek to blacken their good name. My mam and I were never respectable — respect costs money and we hadn’t two pennies to rub together. We’d Malkin Tower to live in but no scrap of land for grazing sheep. Most we could manage was a garden plot in the stony soil. By and by, I think the Nowells had fair forgotten us. When my mam passed on, bless her eternal soul, the tower was in such poor repair they didn’t seem to want it back. So I stayed on, for where else had I to go? It seemed they preferred to have no dealings with me and that it shamed them less to allow me to carry on here like a squatter, not paying a farthings’s rent.
My natural father died some years back, happy and fat and rich. His eldest son, my own half-brother, also named Roger, had become the new master of Read Hall, part of it built from the very stones his grandfather’s servants carted away from the ruined abbey. Younger than me, was my half-brother, by some twenty years. Rarely did our paths cross, for the Nowells went to church in Whalley with the other fine folk, never in the New Church in Goldshaw with the yeomen and lesser gentry. But once, of a market day in Colne, I clapped eyes on Roger Nowell. Impossible to miss him, the way he was sat like some conquering knight upon his great Shire horse, blue-black and gleaming, with red ribbons twisted in its mane. That was some years ago, when my half-brother’s face was yet smooth and unlined. A handsome man, he was, with a firm chin just like mine. I looked straight at him to see if he would recognise his own blood kin. But his sharp blue eyes passed over me as though I was nowt but a heap of dung.
Over the years he’d become a mighty man: Magistrate and Justice of the Peace. We in Pendle Forest were careful not to cross him or give him cause for offence. On account of my being a poor widow, he granted me a begging license. Did it through Constable without speaking a word to me. And so I was left to wander the tracks of Pendle Forest and wheedle, full humble, for food and honest work.
But gone were the days when Christian folk felt beholden to give alms to the poor. When I was a tiny girl, the monks of Whalley Abbey fed and clothed the needy. So did the rich folk, for their souls would languish a fair long time in purgatory if they were stingy to us. In the old days, the poor were respected — our prayers were dearer to God than those of the wealthy. Many a well-to-do man on his deathbed would give out food and alms to the lowliest of the parish, so my mam had told me, if they would only pray for his immortal soul. At his funeral, the poor were given doles of bread and soul cakes.
The reformers said that purgatory was heresy: it was either heaven for the Elect or hell for everyone else, so what need did the rich have to bribe the poor to pray for them? We humble folk were no longer seen as blessed of the Lord but as a right nuisance. When I went begging for a mere bowl of blue milk or a handful of oats to make water porridge, the Hargreaves and the Bannisters and the Mittons narrowed their eyes and said my hard lot was God’s punishment for my sin of bearing a bastard child. Mean as stones, they were. Little did they know. Liza, my lawful-begotten child, was deformed because her father, my husband, gave me no pleasure to speak of, whilst Kit, my bastard, borne of passion and desire, was as tall and beautiful and perfect in form as any larch tree. Ah, but the Puritans would only see what they wanted to see. Most so-called charity they doled out was to give me half a loaf of old bread in exchange for a day laundering soiled clouts.
But I’d even forgive them for that if they hadn’t robbed my life of its solace and joy. In the old days, we’d a saint for every purpose: Margaret for help in childbirth, Anne for protection in storms, Anthony to ward against fire, George to heal horses and protect them from witchcraft. Old King Henry forbade us to light candles before the saints but at least he let us keep their altars. In the old days, no one forced us to go to church either, even for Easter communion. The chapel nave belonged to us, the ordinary people, and it was the second home we all shared. Dividing the nave from the chancel with the high altar was the carved oak roodscreen which framed the priest as he sang out the mass. We didn’t stand solemn and dour during the holy service, either, but wandered about the nave, from one saint’s altar to the next, gazing at the pictures and statues, till the priest rang the bell, then held up the Host for all to see, the plain wafer transformed in a glorious miracle into the body and blood of Christ. Just laying eyes upon the Host was enough to ward a person from witchcraft, plague, and sudden death.
When I was twelve, they finished building the New Church of St. Mary’s in Goldshaw to replace the old crumbling chapel of ease where I’d been christened. Bishop from Chester came to consecrate it just in time for All Souls’ when we rang the bells the whole night through to give comfort to our dead.
Back then we still had our holidays. Christmas lasted twelve days and nights with mummers and guizers in animal masks, dancing by torchlight. The Lord of Misrule, some low born man, lorded it over the gentry to make poor folk laugh. The Towneleys of Carr Hall used to invite all their neighbours, rich and poor alike, to join their festivities. Upon Palm Sunday everyone in the parish gathered for the processions round the fields to make them fertile. After dark, the young folk would go out to bless the land in their own private fashion. Everyone knew what went on, but none stood in our way. If a lass and her young man had to rush to the altar afterward, nobody thought the worse of them for it. I went along with the other girls, arm in arm with my best friend Anne Whittle, both of us wearing green garlands and singing. Cherry-lipped Anne loved to have her sport with the boys, but mindful of my own mother’s fate, I did nowt but kiss and dance and flirt in those days. Only went astray much later in life, when I was a married woman and sore unsatisfied, seeking my pleasures elsewhere.
In my youth, upon May morning, we arose before dawn to gather hawthorn and woodruff. We’d dance round the Maypole and drink elderflower wine till the very sky reeled. At Midsummer’s, upon the eve of the feast of John the Baptist, we carried birch boughs into the church till our chapel looked like a woodland grove. Bonfires blazed the whole night through. Some folk burned fires of bone, not wood, so that the stench might drive away evil wights from the growing crops. Most of us gathered round the wake fire of sweet apple wood where we danced all night, collapsing upon the grass at sunrise. At Lammas the reapers crowned the Harvest Queen and one year, by Our Lady, it was me, a lass of fifteen, crowned in roses and barley, the lads begging me for a kiss.
Old King Henry was dead by then and we lived in hope that the old ways would live again. Crowned in roses, I led the procession of maidens on the Feast of the Assumption, each of us bearing flowers and fruits to lay upon the altar of the Queen of Heaven. Only weeks later, Edward the Boy King sent his men to smash every statue in our church, even that of the Blessed Mother herself, whilst we clutched ourselves, full aghast. They tore down the crucifix over the high altar and burned it as though it was some heathen idol. They destroyed our roodscreen, outlawed our processions, and forbade us to deck the church with greenery upon Midsummer or to bring red roses and poppies to the altar on Corpus Christi. They set fire to our Maypole, forbade us to pray for the dead or celebrate the saints’ feast days.
Six years on, weakling Edward wasted away and his sister Mary Tudor promised to bring back the old religion. For the five years of her reign we had our holidays again, our processions, our mass with swirling incense and the sea of candles lit for the saints. The Towneleys, the Nutters, and the Shuttleworths paid for the new roodscreen, the new statues, altar cloths and vestments. We had our Maypole and rang the church bells for our ancestors on All Souls’ Night. But our joys soured when the news came of the heretics Mary burned alive, near three hundred of them, their only hope to end their agony being the sachets of gunpowder concealed beneath their clothes. Our Catholic queen was nowt but a tyrant. Before long Mary herself died, despised by her own husband, so the story went.
With Queen Elizabeth came the new religion once more to replace the old. The Queen’s agents stormed in to hack apart our brand new roodscreen. But they could not demolish the statues or the crucifix this time round, for the Towneleys, Shuttleworths, and Nutters had divided the holy images between them and taken them into hiding, in secret chapels inside their great houses. In those early days, some said Elizabeth’s reign couldn’t last long. Anne Boleyn’s bastard, she was, and it seemed half of England wanted her dead. On top of that, she refused to marry and produce an heir of her own religion. Yet the Queen’s religion had endured.
In truth, the old ways died that day Elizabeth’s agents sacked our church. For the past twenty-odd years, there had been no dancing of a Sunday, no Sunday ales like we used to have when we made merry within the very nave of the church. Though the Sabbath was the only day of leisure we had, Curate refused to let us have any pleasure of it. No football, dice-playing or card-playing. Magistrate Roger Nowell, my own half-brother, forbade the Robin Hood plays and summer games, for he said they led to drunkenness and wantonness amongst the lower orders. Few weeks back, the piper of Clitheroe was arrested for playing late one Sunday afternoon.
Curate preached that only the Elect would go to heaven and I was canny enough to know that didn’t include me. So if I was damned anyway, why should I suffer to obey their every command? Mind you, I went to church of a Sunday. It was that, or suffer Church Warden’s whip and fine. But I’d left off trying to hold myself to the straight and narrow. Perhaps I’d have fared no better even if the old church had survived, for hadn’t I been an adulteress? Yet still my heart was rooted, full stubborn, in that lost world of chanting, processions, and revels that had bound us together, rich and poor, saint and sinner. My soul’s home was not with this harsh new God, but instead I sought the solace of the Queen of Heaven and whispered the Salve Regina in secret. I swore to cling to the forbidden prayers till my dying day.
I am getting ahead of myself. Back to the story: that evening, after Tibb first appeared to me, I hared off in the long spring twilight, heading home to Malkin Tower. Wasn’t safe to be about after dark. Folk talked of boggarts haunting the night, not that I was ignorant enough to believe every outlandish tale, but I was shaken to the bone from seeing the boy who disappeared into nowhere. The moon, nearly full, shone in the violet sky and the first stars glimmered when, at last, I reached my door.
Our Malkin Tower was an odd place. Tower itself had two rooms, one below and one above, and each room had narrow slits for windows from the days, hundreds of years ago, when guardsmen were sat there with their bows and arrows, on the look-out for raiders and poachers. But, as the tower had no chimney or hearth, we spent most of our time in the firehouse, a ramshackle room built on to the foot of the tower. And it was into the firehouse I stumbled that night. My daughter Liza, sat close by the single rush light, gave a cry when she saw me.
“So late coming home, Mam! Did a devil cross your path?”
In the wavering light, my girl looked more frightful than the devil she spoke of, though she couldn’t help it, God bless her. Her left eye stood lower in her face than the other, and while her right eye looked up, her left eye looked down. The sight of her was enough to put folk off their food. Couldn’t hire herself out as a kitchen maid because the housewives of Pendle feared our Liza would spoil their milk and curdle their butter. Looking the way she did, it would take a miracle for her to get regular work, let alone a husband. Most she could hope for was a day’s pittance for carding wool or weeding some housewife’s garden.
Ignoring her talk of the devil, I unpacked the clump of old bread, the gleanings of the day’s begging, and Liza sliced it into pieces thin as communion wafer.
Liza, myself, my son Kit, and Kit’s wife, also Elizabeth, though we called her Elsie, gathered for our supper. Kit hired himself out as a day labourer, but at this time of year, there was little work to be had. Lambing season had just passed. Shearing wouldn’t come till high summer. Best he could do was ask for work at the slate pits and hope to earn enough to keep us in oatmeal and barley flour. Kit’s wife, Elsie, was heavy with child. Most work she could get was a day’s mending or spinning.
When we were sat together at the table, my Liza went green in the face at the taste of the old bread and could barely get a mouthful of the stuff down before she bolted out the door to be sick. Out of old habit, not even thinking, I crossed myself. I looked to Kit, who looked to his wife, who shook her head in sadness. Elsie would deliver her firstborn within the month and now it appeared that Liza was with child, as well. First I wondered who the father could be. Then I asked myself how we would feed two little babes when we were hard-pressed to do for ourselves? We were silent, the lot of us, Elsie doling out the buttermilk she had off the Bulcocks in exchange for a day’s spinning. Our Kit gave his wife half of his own share of bread — wasn’t she eating for two?
Then I found I couldn’t finish my own bread, so I passed it to Kit before hauling myself out the door to look for Liza. By the cold moonlight I found my poor squint-eyed broomstick of a girl bent over the gatepost, crying fit to die. Taking Liza in my arms, I held her and rubbed her hair. I begged her to tell me who the father was, but she refused.
“It will be right,” I told her. “Not the first time an unwed girl fell pregnant. We’ll make do somehow.” What else could I say? I’d no business browbeating her for doing the same as I’d done with Kit’s father, twenty-two years ago.
After leading my Liza back inside, we made for our beds. I climbed to the upper tower. Room was so cold and draughty that everyone else preferred sleeping below, but of a crystal-clear evening I loved nothing better than to lie upon my pallet and gaze at the moon and stars through the narrow windows. Cold wind didn’t bother me much. I was born with thick skin, would have died ages ago if I’d been a more delicate sort. Yet that night the starry heavens gave me little comfort. I laid myself down and tried to ignore the hammer of worry in my head. Church Warden and Constable were sure to make a stink about Liza. Another bastard child to live off the charity of the parish. They’d fine her at the very least. She’d be lucky if she escaped the pillory. Sleepless, I huddled there whilst the wind whistled through the thatch.
When I finally closed my eyes, I saw Tibb, his face in its golden glory. Looked like one of the angels I remembered seeing in our church before the reformers stripped the place bare. Out of the dark crush of night came his voice, sweet as a lover’s, gentle as Kit’s father was in the days when he called me his beauty, his heart’s joy. Tibb’s lips were at my ear.
“If I could,” he told me, “if you let me, I’d ease your burdens, my Bess. No use fretting about Liza. She’ll lose the child within a fortnight and none but you and yours will know she fell pregnant in the first place.”
My throat was dry and sore. Couldn’t even think straight.
“You’re afraid of me,” he said. “But you shouldn’t be. I mean you no harm.”
“You’re not real,” I whispered. “I’m just dreaming you.”
“I’m as real as the ache in your heart,” he whispered back. “You were meant to be more than a common beggar, our Bess. You could be a blesser. Next time, you see a sick cow, bless it. Say three Ave Marias and sprinkle some water on the beast. Folk will pay you for such things. Folk will hold you in regard and you won’t have to grovel for the scraps off their table.”
What nonsense, I thought. Church warden would have me whipped and fined for saying the Ave Maria — and that was but mild chastisement. Catholics were still hanged in these parts, their priests drawn and quartered. I told myself that there was no such boy called Tibb — it was just my empty stomach talking. I rolled over, pulling the tattered blanket to my ears.
He wouldn’t give over. “It runs in your blood. You’ve inherited the gift from your mam’s father.”
I shook my head no. “My grandfather was an ostler. An honest man.”
“He was a horse-charmer, if you remember well.”
Tibb’s voice summoned the memories. I was sat on Grand-Dad’s knee and he jostled me so that I could pretend I was riding a bouncy pony and all the while he chanted the Charm to St. George to ward horses from witchcraft. Enforce we us with all our might to love St. George, Our Lady’s Knight. Grand-Dad died when I was seven, but he’d taught my mam all his herbcraft for healing beast and folk alike, which she, in turn, had taught me, though Mam herself had no dealings in charms.
What a marvel. Grand-Dad working his blessings in the stables at Read Hall, beneath the Nowells’ very noses. He must have served them well, kept their nags healthy and sound, so that instead of reporting him for sorcery they became his protectors. Perhaps that, indeed, was why the Nowells had given Malkin Tower to Mam — it did no good at all to vex a cunning man by treating his daughter ill.
Still the knowing made the sweat run cold down my back. To think that I carried this inside me. I could not say a word, only pray that Tibb would vanish again and leave me in peace.
“My own Bess, do I need to give you a sign or two? You’ll see what I’ve said of Liza will come to pass. Now I’ll give you more knowledge of the future. Before the moon is new again, Elsie will bear a son.”
In spite of myself, I laughed. “Any fool can see she’s carrying a boy from the way she’s bearing so high and wide. I don’t need a slip of a lad like you telling me about wenches bearing babies.”
My mocking didn’t put Tibb off. He only coaxed me all the more. “They’ll name the lad Christopher after his father and you’ll see your Kit’s father in the little lad’s face, my Bess. You’ll feel so tender that the years of bitterness will melt away.”
Tears came to my eyes when I remembered my lover who had given me such pleasure before he bolted off, never to show his face again, leaving me to bear my shame and endure an angry husband fit to flay me alive and the gossips wagging their tongues and pointing. My husband refused to give the baby his name, so that was why my Kit was named Christopher Holgate, not Southerns. As punishment for my sin, I was made to stand a full day in the pillory in Colne marketplace.
“That’s not all I can tell you of your future,” said Tibb, nestling close, his breath warming my face. “In time, your Liza will marry an honest man who will love her in spite of her squint.”
“Fortune-telling’s a sin,” I squeaked. In this Curate and the priests of the old religion had always been of one mind. A dangerous thing, it was, to push back the veil and look into the future, for unless such knowledge came from a prophecy delivered by God, it came from the other place, the evil place, the Devil. Diviners and those who consulted them would be punished in hell by having their heads twisted backward for their unholy curiosity.
Still Tibb carried on in a voice I couldn’t block out. “Liza will give you three grandchildren.”
How seductive he was. If only I could trust him and believe that my Liza would be blessed by the love of a good man, a happy family.
“Her first-born daughter will be your joy,” Tibb told me. “You’ll love her till you forget yourself, my Bess. A pretty impudent lass with skin like cream. A beauty such as you were at her age. She’ll be your very likeness and you’ll teach her the things that I’ll teach you.” His voice sang with his promise.
“What else can you tell me?” I asked, my heart in my mouth.
Opening my eyes, I dared myself to look him in the face, but I only saw the stars shining in the window slits.
©2010 by Mary Sharratt.
Bless my space, O Lord!
North, south, east, west;
My Lord brings me all things blessed.
East, west, south, north;
All shadow, our God’s life drives forth.
South, north, west, east;
Angels draw us to the bridal feast.
West, east, north, south;
Let wisdom’s winds flow through my mouth.
From earth and sky,
All evil fly
From blessed birth
In sky and earth.
From sea and fire,
Our foes retire.
By fire and sea,
Comes love to me.
©2010 by Ambrose Hawk.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.