The Hanged Man: Part 7: Beltane
Post #63: In which some questions have no answers ...
(If you are a new subscriber, you might want to start at the beginning of The Hanged Man.)
Maria stretched her legs out in front of her and leaned back on her hands, looking across the lake. “Should I have let my children go with Juan?”
“Who knows?” said Rumpelstiltskin.
“I’ve never heard anyone talk about this part of being a parent,” said Elizabeth. “How do we love them so much and let them go? Why are we required to tear ourselves apart?” She grimaced and tears fell down her cheeks.
“Mother!” Rapunzel protested.
“It’s not your fault,” Rumpelstiltskin said to her. “Children are right to grow up and go into the world to live their lives. It’s the natural way of things. It’s also the harshest requirement of love, the final sacrifice. Every parent faces it.”
“I didn’t do it well,” said Elizabeth. “I failed you, my daughter. I was selfish and weak.”
“And I was worse than that,” said Maria quietly. “My sons will never be free now.”
“We dwarves have loved and cared for young women for generations,” said Rumpelstiltskin. “We’re father, mother, guide, teacher, and friend. One of the most ancient pieces of female power is to ‘let die what must.’
“Let die what must,” repeated Maria.
“Let die what must,” said Rumpelstiltskin. “Knowing when to let loved ones go and being able to do it is one of the hardest lessons we ever learn. Women are vessels of life, yes, but to be fully in their power women must also learn to work with death. Allow it, dance unafraid with it, and sometimes even cause it.”
“Ah,” said Maria. “Mary said that to me!” She looked at the dwarve. “She said ‘Life and death are two sides of the same thing. We must come to terms with both to live well.’”
Rumpelstiltskin smiled. “Good for her. She’s right. In fact, my own story touches on this business of letting go as well. Will you hear?”
They listened while he told of Jenny’s mother and Jenny. He spoke briefly of the initiation in order to explain Jenny’s apprenticeship with Minerva, though he didn’t speak of what he’d seen in Baba Yaga’s iron cauldron.
“So, I took her to Minerva’s workshop and left her there,” he finished. He wiped his eyes on his sleeve without embarrassment. “I miss her more than I can say, but I know she’s where she needs to be, and she knows it, too. Another young woman alone in the world waits for me on the road ahead and I’ll love her too. One day I’ll part from her as well. It’s the way of things.”
Listening to Elizabeth and Rumpelstiltskin, Maria became aware of a new aspect of motherhood. In her desperation and fear over losing her sons, she’d never considered allowing them to go. Her shame and horror over destroying her children was so large it had obliterated the perspective of motherhood as a long harrowing journey for every mother, filled with regret and imperfection. Love for a child, she began to understand, was a complex and tricky emotion, changing over time and frequently bitter.
Rapunzel sprang to her feet in a single, supple movement, distracting Maria from her reverie. She tugged off her clothes, dropped them on the pier and dove into the lake without a word. Drops of water flew. They saw the flash of her pale skin under water.
“Oh, honestly!” said Elizabeth.
Rumpelstiltskin laughed. “I expect she wanted to cool off. She has a lot to assimilate.”
They watched her swim in smooth, easy strokes toward the center of the lake. Rumpelstiltskin’s smile faded. “I left out part of it,” he said, “because I didn’t like to say it in front of her.” He nodded toward the swimmer. “During the initiation, I saw…” He swallowed. “I saw Jenny’s death.”
Neither woman said anything but the silence was warm with sympathy.
“It didn’t change what I needed to do — to let her go, I mean,” said Rumpelstiltskin.
“But it made it harder,” said Maria.
“Yes and no. It made it harder, but even more important to do it well, because she deserves to live her own life, however short it is.”
“You’ve done what I couldn’t do,” said Elizabeth. “I’ve always been proud of my power, too proud to admit how lonely I’ve felt or to reach out to others. My pride made me desperate to keep my girl with me. I called it love, but some of it was pride.”
“She loves you,” said Maria. “I don’t think you’ll lose her altogether.”
“That will be up to her,” said Elizabeth. “I think I’ll find a small town, like this one,” she gestured beyond the lake, “and buy a house with a garden and make some friends.” She looked at Maria. “Will you go on searching for your sons?”
“Do you think I should stop?” asked Maria, looking from Rumpelstiltskin to Elizabeth. “Should I let them go?”
Rumpelstiltskin shook his head. “I can’t advise you in this. I think only you can decide what to do. If you find them, what then?”
“I don’t know. I’ve wondered about that. I suppose I thought in the beginning we’d find some place to live and start over. But maybe they’re with someone else now in a new home. Maybe they hate me, or fear me, or have forgotten me. Now I wonder if maybe I need to find them in order to set them free. If I can find them at all.”
“I know,” said Maria. “But I think, yes, I must go on searching, at least for now.”
“I’ll get back on the road tomorrow,” said Rumpelstiltskin. “I’m needed ahead. I’m glad we met. I haven’t told a living soul what I saw in that cauldron and it’s been a heavy burden in my heart. I feel better having told you.”
Rapunzel and Maria decided to travel together for a time. Rapunzel possessed no particular plan or destination. Maria wanted to follow the river running out of the lake and continue her search. The next morning Rumpelstiltskin set out early. Elizabeth took a walk while Maria and Rapunzel packed and made themselves ready. When she returned, Elizabeth embraced Rapunzel, rocking slightly and speaking into her ear. Maria turned away, happy for their reconciliation but with a pang in her own heart. Would she ever again hold either of her sons against her breast?
By the time Rapunzel and Maria set out, the day was overcast and smelled like rain. Rapunzel enjoyed wild weather and Maria was undaunted, so they dropped rain capes like tents over their bundles and packs. They planned to follow the course of the river flowing out of the lower edge of the lake. Maria wanted to move downstream.
They traveled silently, for the most part, during the afternoon. A fine misting rain settled in. Maria searched up and down both sides of the river for any sign of her sons as they made their way along it. The going was rough in places and they occasionally lost sight of the water, detouring around thick brush or swampy ground.
The day waned into damp evening. Maria felt tired and chilled. They stopped for the night within a circle of evergreens. There was a pond nearby, noisy with frogs. Rapunzel was enchanted with their various sounds, delighted as a child with the peeping, squeaking, gulping, belching chorus. They found relatively dry ground under the trees, soft with duff and years of pine needles. They hung their rain gear over boughs to dry. Rapunzel went to the river for water and returned to say the clouds would move out by next morning, leaving it clear and fair. They made a good cold meal, not wanting to start a fire under the trees, wrapped themselves in blankets and slept. The sound of frogs followed Maria into her dreams.
The next morning was indeed sunny. They rolled up their blankets and rain capes and ate. Rapunzel watched Maria comb out her dark sheet of hair, twist it deftly and pin it.
“Do you ever think of cutting it short?”
“Of course not! I couldn’t do that.”
Maria looked at Rapunzel. “It’s the custom for a woman my age to grow long hair and wear it up.”
“It just is, Rapunzel! It’s the way we do it where I come from.”
Rapunzel giggled. “Don’t get mad. I’m not being a brat. I only want to know why it’s the custom. Who made the rule? What happens if someone doesn’t follow it?”
Maria shook her head. “I can’t answer you. I don’t know. I never thought about it before — it’s the way it’s done.”
“Okay. If it wasn’t the rule would you ever think about cutting it, just to do something different?”
Maria felt irritated without quite knowing why. “No. I don’t want to be different. I want to be like everyone else.” She fixed Rapunzel with a stern eye. “Don’t you dare ask me why.”
Rapunzel, whose lips were framing the word, burst into giggles instead. Maria laughed too, in spite of herself. She picked up her bundle. “Are we going to walk or are you going to stand here all day asking idiot questions?” But she still smiled.
They walked. This morning they found a path along the river that made the going easier.
“I wasn’t being provocative, Maria. I’ve been thinking about my mother. I never knew she felt so lonely. Why must a powerful woman like Mother be outcast? Must everyone fear her, or is that just a social rule? We seem to live by so many invisible rules, and no one ever questions them or talks about them, like your hair rule.” She gestured toward Maria’s neat knot.
“We need rules, don’t we?” asked Maria, interested now, irritation forgotten. “There are always social rules.”
“Yes, but how important are they? Why does it matter how we wear our hair, or how long it is? And who makes the rules?”
“I suppose rules about hair aren’t important in any real sense. But there’s a real kind of punishment if you don’t follow them. I don’t know who makes the rules in the first place, but everyone enforces them.”
“Do you think less of me because I cut off my hair?”
“Of course not! It’s your hair, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Maria, I don’t think less of you because you had two sons with a man you weren’t married to.”
Maria felt like she’d been struck. “Oh, Rapunzel, that’s not the same at all! Marriage and children — that’s a religious rule. It’s the most powerful law there is.”
“Maybe for you, but not for me. Not for Juan, either. Why did you have to follow that rule and he didn’t?”
“Because he was a man,” Maria said with some bitterness.
“You mean different rules apply differently to men and women?”
“Why are you badgering me? You’ve confused me now.” Maria’s voice sounded angry in her own ears. “That’s enough!”
“I’m sorry. I’m only trying to understand.”
They walked along in silence. Maria strode down the damp path. Wet branches and grasses brushed against her. Sunlight shone off the river’s surface. Automatically, she watched the bank for signs of her sons. She tried to find the familiar mental resting place of dull grief and shame but Rapunzel’s questions niggled at her. Rules. So many rules. Who did make the rules? Who gave Juan the power to take her sons away from her? Why was she the only one punished for the results of their love?
The river curved and a crescent of rocky bank was exposed to sun. A fallen tree made a convenient bench. Maria left the path and jumped down onto the rocks. Rapunzel followed without comment and they set down their burdens and settled on the fallen tree trunk, side by side.
Maria watched the water flow by. Had any drop of this water news of her lost sons?
“I’m sorry. I feel like a fool. Your questions are good questions. I wonder why I’ve never thought to ask them -- and find answers. I don’t like knowing I’ve followed these rules without ever thinking about them. What am I, a sheep?”
Rapunzel laughed, then sobered. “It’s really not funny, is it? Rules carry such power. Why do you think we accept them and follow them so blindly?”
Maria frowned. “I suppose we think if we follow the rules, we’ll be safe. People will approve of us.”
“We’ll be loved?”
“Does that mean we can’t be loved unless we follow the rules?” Maria felt her temper rise again but this time it wasn’t directed at Rapunzel.
“Well,” said Rapunzel slowly, “my mother loves me, even though I broke her rules. Do you think Juan loved you?”
Maria shook her head. “I want to say yes, of course he did. I don’t think so, though. In being with him I broke rules because we weren’t married. Having children with him was evidence of breaking rules.”
“At least twice,” put in Rapunzel slyly.
Maria gave her a playful slap. Rapunzel laughed.
Maria continued, “I broke the rules because I wanted him and I was afraid if I insisted on marriage he’d go away.” She winced. “That’s hard to admit, but it’s true.”
“So, he didn’t love you because you broke the rules and you don’t think he would have loved you if you’d played by the rules?”
“I don’t think the damn rules had anything to do with it at all, except they protected him, not me. He’d nothing to lose by breaking rules.”
“Did I? Only because I believed in them in the first place. Only because I agreed it was important to be married because of the boys. Only because I agreed to think of myself as a whore!” She stooped and picked up a stone at her feet, flung it into the river.
“If you’re a whore, Maria, so am I.”
Maria turned on her. “Don’t you call yourself that! You’re not a whore. That’s an ugly, ugly word.”
“But I do call myself that! If a whore sleeps with a man outside of marriage, that’s what I did. I wanted to. I even liked it. I didn’t like Alexander much, especially after the first couple of weeks, but I liked the way I felt with him. I’d do it again. I’m even worse than you because you loved Juan and you thought you were building a family. I didn’t love Alex.”
Maria poked at a handful of rocks, laid them out carefully in a row on the log beneath them, chose one and threw it into the water.
“It seems to me,” said Rapunzel, “the only difference between us is you wanted to follow rules I don’t care about.”
“I never thought about following rules at all,” said Maria. “I thought about what other people thought of me and my sons. I felt ashamed. I was expected to behave in certain ways and I didn’t meet those expectations. Now we’re talking about it, I guess that’s another way of saying I cared about following the rules, but that’s not how I thought of it then.”
“If those rules made you so unhappy you wanted to kill yourself, then maybe they’re bad rules. If rules are made, can’t they be unmade? Can’t we say no, that’s a bad rule, I won’t follow it?”
Maria clenched her hands together and twisted them in her lap. “Did I murder my children because of invisible rules I didn’t make and didn’t agree to? Was it nothing more than that? I threw them in the river and watched them get swept away because of other people’s rules and expectations? Those were more important to me than my children’s lives?” Her voice rose and broke on the last word. She found herself on her feet. A bitter rage rose in her, too large to contain. She threw back her head and howled.
This was nothing like the helpless, resigned weeping of The One Who Weeps. It was a passionate, violent protest. Giving it voice wasn’t enough. Maria clawed at her hair. A pin slid out of the knot and a tail of hair untwisted. Rapunzel stood up as Maria tore at her cloak. She pulled Maria’s cloak off, took her wrist in a hard grasp and waded straight out into the middle of the river, hauling Maria along behind her.
The spring runoff had passed. The water was cold but reached only to their knees. The current was surprisingly strong and the river bed slippery underfoot. Maria hadn’t been in water since the day…the day… The pull of cold water, the uncertain footing, the heavy wet skirt dragging against her legs brought it back with terrible vivid detail. She screamed. She wouldn’t do this terrible thing. She wouldn’t do it! But it was too late. No small hand held hers, no weight rested on her hip. Even her bundle of weaving was gone. She had done it. They were gone. She’d given them to the river and the river had swallowed them. They were gone. All gone.
Rapunzel held her wrist with bruising strength. Maria’s screaming became a torrent of weeping. She pulled, trying to break Rapunzel’s grasp. Rapunzel took a step, adjusted her footing and wrapped her free arm around Maria. She began to speak. She didn’t raise her voice and her words carried no urgency.
“Maria, water is emotion. Water moves. It passes through and over. It ebbs and flows. It rises and falls. It floods and recedes. It washes everything away. It makes a new path, a new bed, a new outline. It drips, it drops. It trickles and murmurs and bubbles. It gushes and chuckles and sings. It moves up into the sky and falls down again. It flows from top to bottom and is carried up again. Its secret name is Hyash. Water is life, Maria. It’s an endless cycle of life.”
Maria hung her head and cried in deep gasps. Her voice sounded hoarse. The bottom half of her face was slimed with mucus. She stood more quietly and Rapunzel cautiously loosened her grip on Maria’s wrist. The strong arm around Maria’s body became a hug rather than a restraint. Maria pressed her forehead to Rapunzel’s. She trembled. Her shoulders heaved. The river slid around them, passed by them, pushing and pulling at their wet clothes.
They stood together, forehead to forehead, and after a time Maria realized Rapunzel wept with her.
(This was published with Edition #63 of Weaving Webs and Turning Over Stones.)