The Hanged Man: Part 9: Lughnasadh
Post #94 : In which a solitary journey ...
Much later, wind combed forest and hill, rippling and ruffling earth’s fading garments. Tonight, fall was in the air, nervous and restless. It suited Rapunzel’s mood. Her body throbbed painfully in response to the night wind. Alexander’s eye nestled in her closed hand. In her restlessness, she’d turned to it again, her old guide, but it remained a white marble. No lash, no outline, no wrinkle of an eyelid could be seen.
It wasn’t that she didn’t know what to do. She knew. It was finding the courage to do it, and it was such a ridiculously simple thing. Go or don’t go. Why make such a big deal out of it? It wasn’t forever. It wasn’t a commitment. It wasn’t anything but taking a short trip with a friend.
The dance had unsettled her, she thought resentfully. She’d been irritable ever since that night. She remembered Ginger whirling in front of her, hair like dark flame, skirt flaring, feet and breasts bare. She had looked like a wild thing, like Rosie’s Rowan or one of the Rusalka. Her dance was barbaric, savage, infinitely lovely. Her dance had mingled with Maria’s like black and silver, frost and ember, Ginger flickering like a red star.
Then suddenly the drumbeat had impaled Rapunzel, stretching her wide. Never before had she experienced such complete subjugation. Everything primitive and wild in her nature flung itself ecstatically into its demand. Her dance responded, met thrusting beat and rode it with passion, spurring it on to go deeper, faster, MORE!
The drummer was the owl-eyed Rusalka, Sofiya. Her hands were quick and hard, using Rapunzel’s body fiercely. Rapunzel threw herself into the golden eyes and the drum spoke, brass, copper and bronze. Rapture tore at her with bloody beak and talon.
Then Sofiya danced with her, wing tip and shoulder, downy breast and buff feathered hair. Rapunzel let out a wordless cry of triumph. Her body flickered from grotesque to lovely, as though two women danced in one skin.
She’d never imagined such intoxicating power.
Now she wandered through the woods, gilt hair stirring in errant eddies of wind between trees. Noola was only a few days past full. Dappled silver shadows shifted under the trees. She stood in a patch of trembling, leaf-flecked light and examined the marble for what felt like the dozenth time.
“Open, damn you!” she said aloud. “Help me out, here!”
It lay in her palm, inert and cold.
She stooped and flung it from her hand. It rolled across the ground, coming to rest at the feet of a hooded figure. A large dog sat there. It bent and sniffed at the pale sphere, lifting a lip to show gleaming teeth.
Rapunzel bowed her head submissively, recognizing the figure by the wolf and the flaming torch.
“Choose, daughter. Choose, and then choose again. There’s no right or wrong. There’s only choice, and what follows. You can’t escape your own power to choose. This,” she nudged the marble with a toe, “is of no use to you. You’ve moved beyond its ability to guide you.”
Wind pushed at branches and boughs. Somewhere wood rubbed against wood, giving a tree a voice of anguish. Rapunzel stood alone. She picked the marble up carefully and slipped away, back toward Rowan Tree and its sleeping inhabitants.
“Mother. I never dreamed I’d meet you.”
“Don’t bow to me, child,” said Minerva. “We’re family. Kiss me, and let’s talk together. You’ve wandered far from the trees where you started.”
With the help of Jan, Kunik had built Eurydice a bench, wide and comfortable with a slanting back. It stood at the edge of the rowan trees in the sun. From it, they could see Eurydice’s stone shelter and the spring. Cassandra wandered here and there, exploring.
The night Blodeuwedd and Minerva appeared, Eurydice kept back, though her heart leapt when she realized who Minerva was. Olive trees were Minerva’s own sacred symbol, and Eurydice had learned about Minerva as a child. It was hard to believe this ordinary-looking older woman, with her glasses and efficient air, was the patroness of commerce, ingenuity and weaving, among the wisest and greatest of guides.
Cassandra approached and took both Eurydice’s hands in hers, looking into her eyes. Her own eyes were remote, as though seeing something far away.
“The snake twines about you,” she said. “It whispered to me while it swallowed its tail and rolled…and rolled…” She trailed off, looking confused.
“Did he hold you in his coils?” asked Eurydice gently, thinking of Mirmir.
“Yes,” said Cassandra, relaxing. “The snake is a wheel around the center tree.”
“I know,” said Eurydice, squeezing the other woman’s hands. “I’ve seen it too.”
Seeming satisfied, Cassandra dropped her hands and wandered toward the spring. Minerva looked after her, shaking her head.
“You’re kind. She doesn’t frighten you?”
“No. I haven’t talked to her before now, but she’s not frightening, just…odd. She doesn’t mean any harm. She makes me want to protect her.”
“I know. Me, too. But honestly, sometimes trying to watch over her is like herding cats!”
Eurydice laughed. They sat down together.
“Eurydice, we need your help, Cassandra and I, in opening the way for one of the people here. I’ve come to speak to you as Doorkeeper. But I also come to you because you’re one of my own, one of my daughters. There’s another here who is one of mine, though neither of us knew it.”
“Maria,” said Eurydice at once. “Oh, Minerva, I’m glad. She…Maria’s special. Her weaving is beautiful, but she does more than that. She has power.”
“You love her.”
“Yes. She’s known tragedy but she’s brave. She’s wise. She’s become our leader here, without ever wanting to. People respect her.”
“She and I will talk. Eurydice, there’s yet another I’m interested in. His father was a great artist. He’s gone now, but you’ve seen his work in the hands and at the lips of the peddler Dar. His son inherited his father’s talent and increased it with his own experience. He’s a great maker, one of those who helps turn the wheel of life and death. You’re rooted in this man.”
“Kunik. In his hands, bones sing before their singing voice is created. He doesn’t yet know his father is here with him in Dar’s hands, but he’s already been to Nephthys to learn about bones so that he can take his place at the wheel as maker.”
Eurydice thought of Kunik’s listening, exploring hands, his quiet sense of humor, his odd fey streak, his steadiness. By now they’d shared their stories after their time at Janus House with one another. She thought of the ice bear man, living in starry snow under a night sky rippling with color with his human lover, opening the throats of bones for song, and the child crawling around his feet, magic and skill waiting for the right time in his chubby palms.
Minerva watched her. “This feels right to you?”
“A doorkeeper and shape seer are a fine combination, daughter. You can keep his way open, and he’ll never ask you to be less — or different — than you are. He’ll always see your true shape, even when you can’t.”
Cassandra, having explored the inside of Eurydice’s house and the spring, came across the grass and subsided at their feet. She was like a child, Eurydice thought, until you noticed the strained face and disordered hair, threaded with grey. There was no tension in her now, though. She picked a twig of rowan berries and turned it between her hands.
“Red galaxies,” she murmured. “Moons and stars and red-clawed bear.”
“Ah, yes,” Minerva said briskly. “Let’s get down to our first order of business. I understand you’ll be opening the way for Morfran, Sofiya and some of their people to return home?”
“Yes. They came to help us find Ginger and Radulf and establish dance. Some of the Rusalka want to stay and help Rosie take care of a birch forest near here. When the others go, Rapunzel and Heks want to go with them. Rapunzel wants to learn sacred drumming.”
“And this woman Heks?”
Eurydice frowned. “I’m not sure exactly what her intention is. She doesn’t say much. She’s very self-contained. I’m not sure what to make of her. She doesn’t fit in well. She seems so ordinary, but I’ve seen her dance, and she was full of power then. She scared me a little.”
“You’re right. She is full of power, and she’s ready to meet a teacher, but he’s not where the others are going. You must open a different way for Heks. I’ll tell you privately she thinks she’s going to Baba Yaga to learn, but her true way is in another direction.”
“Tell me what you need me to do.”
“I’ve always wanted a sister,” said Rapunzel. Saying the words made her want to lie down under a cover of mown grass and fallen leaves, change into her ugly woman face and weep until she was emptied out. The depth of her own passionate grief surprised her.
Ginger looked away, watching Maria feed the hens. Five chickens clustered around her as she spread handfuls of feed.
“I have sisters,” she said, returning her attention to Rapunzel, “but I’ve always wanted a friend.”
They smiled at each other.
“I’m glad you came,” said Rapunzel. “We needed you. We needed dance. But…for me it’s more than the dance.”
“The drums. I saw. I watched you.”
“I want to do that! I want to be that — with the drums. How can I learn?”
“Well, there are teachers. Baubo teaches drumming and dance. Baba Yaga, they say, is a fine drummer.”
“I can’t say I blame you there,” said Ginger. “I’ve not had the pleasure of meeting the lady, but I’ve heard about her.”
“You can’t possibly imagine,” said Rapunzel darkly.
“Drumming is like dance,” said Ginger reflectively. “Everyone can do it, but some can do it on a level different from most. I could teach you a little myself, but I think you need much more than I can teach.”
“I want to play like Sofiya.”
“The Rusalka are strange creatures. They guard their privacy and knowledge. They do take others in, though. Morfran, for example, and Vasilisa. No one knows more about ecstatic sacred dance and music than the Rusalka do.”
“Do you think they’d teach me?”
“You can only ask.”
Leaves drifted in the air on a morning of gust and racing clouds. Eurydice stood in front of a group of people at Rowan Gate. They’d said their goodbyes over breakfast. Morfran and Sofiya stood with the Rusalka. Vasilisa and Rapunzel waited side by side. Heks’ face was unreadable, her body tense. She fisted her hand in her pocket.
Eurydice stood against a stone wall of the spring’s enclosure, sunlight flowing over her head, bringing a purplish sheen to her hair. She closed her eyes and raised her arms, and for a moment Rapunzel could mistake her for a tree, broad-trunked, knotted and twisted in a sun-drenched landscape.
“Your way is open,” breathed Eurydice. The Rusalka stepped forward and disappeared in the shadowed enclosure, followed by Morfran and Sofiya. Eurydice gave Rapunzel and Vasilisa each a swift kiss and a smile and said good-bye to Heks as she followed them, leaving Rowan Tree behind them.
It was Rapunzel who had told Heks the story of Blodeuwedd. She’d learned of her as a child, from Elizabeth. It was one of Rapunzel’s favorite tales, the woman created from sacred plant and blossom who possessed far more power than the magicians who created her. Blodeuwedd contained primordial female energy, the perfectly balanced ferocity of life and death.
As Rapunzel described the magician’s curse and the blow of his staff, Heks’ own heart leapt and soared as Blodeuwedd flew up in rapturous freedom as an owl, and Heks felt an almost sexual wave of power. To be free altogether of men and women and sex! To be beyond anyone’s control! To learn the mystery of night and darkness and bathe in moonlight!
The story became part of her longing. She couldn’t name her hunger. Her body hungered, yes, but for something more, something deeper than longing for physical pleasure. She hungered for something as big as the wild night sky.
And the marbles. A wicked amoral child within her gloated over the marbles.
She possessed eight now. First Rapunzel gave her the blue-eyed marble, telling a fascinated Heks the whole story of Alexander’s eyes. When she’d laid the milky white sphere in Heks’ palm, the blue eye opened, making Heks shudder with a kind of horrified excitement.
“That’s the first time it’s opened since the day I met you,” said Rapunzel.
“What does it mean?” asked Heks.
“I think it means it recognizes you,” said Rapunzel. “It doesn’t guide me anymore. I don’t need it. Will you keep it for me? Keep it safe with yours.”
Then Maria sought her out. Heks had heard Maria’s story, but the four brown eyes still gave her the same sick, excited feeling she’d experienced when holding the blue eye. As Maria took them down from their rock ledge, all four eyes opened suddenly, making Maria exclaim in surprise.
“These haven’t been opened since I arrived!”
Heks felt a small spurt of satisfaction. Perhaps all the eyes recognized her.
Most surprising of all had been the approach of Radulf.
Heks had been caring for the goats. Two nannies and a billy had arrived with the villagers, and Heks was fond of them. She was cleaning the pen, having let the goats go out and nibble in the autumn sun, when Radulf appeared.
He’d picked up a fork and helped her. Heks found herself once again caught up in another’s story as he talked of mermaids and sea wolves and fiery skulls.
When they’d spread fresh dried grass for bedding and filled the water buckets, they sat in the sun on the grassy slope and he took the wolf’s eye from his pocket and handed it to her.
“I’ve been traveling for a long time,” he said. “I’ve had many guides. Too many, sometimes!” He smiled wryly. “I thought I was finished traveling when I met Ginger, but I’ve lately realized there’s at least one more journey to take. I’m going home to the sea. Minerva, Cassandra and I will travel together to Griffin Town, where Minerva’s business and school are. She’s asked me to help her set up a shipping business, which is what my own father did. I’ll be able to distribute Minerva’s products more widely, as well as what Rowan Tree produces. Ginger wants to stay here at Rowan Tree.”
Radulf nodded at the eye. “This has been both guide and messenger. It guided me to Dar, and then to you and the others. It’s taken me a while to understand its message, but I think I finally know part of it. The sea is calling me home. It holds my future. Maria told me she gave you her eyes to take care of, and I wondered if you’d take mine, too.”
The golden eye looked up at her, aloof and unknowable. I’m a creature beyond your power, its gaze said. She closed her fingers over it.
Now all the marbles, along with her own galaxies, were clenched in her hand as she turned on the spot, taking in her surroundings.
There was no sign of Rusalka, birch forest, Morfran, Sofiya, Vasilisa or Rapunzel. She was quite alone.
Somehow, she was unsurprised by this.
She stood in a steep river valley. A path lay at her feet, climbing and disappearing among unfamiliar trees whose leaves were starting to fall. Above her loomed a mountain with a bare rocky summit.
Heks began to walk, following the path.
She climbed through patches of trees and slopes covered with boulders. The trees touched her as she passed among them, their trailing branches like a caress. The path twisted awkwardly between rocks, bruising and treacherous.
For two days, she climbed through stones and trees, and then she reached a plateau. Here grew a pine forest. Jays and squirrels scolded angrily at her as she passed and the trees seemed aloof, the soft prickly brush of their boughs indifferent.
Then she began to climb again. Now the slope grew steeper. The plants looked scrubby and tough. Stones slid and shifted unexpectedly under her feet as she clambered.
She’d begun to wonder what she was doing. She was alone, in a strange place, without guide or friend, following a path with no known beginning or end. She carried a pocketful of marbles that might once have been eyes. It occurred to her to check the eyes, but they were all open and inscrutable. They gave her no guidance.
That night she saw a white owl floating over her camp as she lay wrapped in blankets next to a fire. She watched it, hands under her head, as it rose and fell like a flake of snow, and felt better. There’s more than one white owl in the world, she told herself. It could be any owl. But if it was Blodeuwedd, she wasn’t alone. The path must go somewhere. She could always turn around and go back down it.
She closed her eyes and slept.
The next day a storm enveloped her. Snow blinded her, and wind blew in her ears. She wasn’t shod or clothed for the weather, and her bruised feet grew colder and colder as she slipped and slid up the mountain. She lost track of time. The muffled daylight seemed endless. She felt she’d been struggling on the mountain’s body for weeks. She kept her watering eyes on her feet and let her awareness dwindle to nothing except the next step.
Light had faded and the storm had died when she came to a narrow cave. It faced away from the wind and was dry. She took off her pack and pushed it in, wedging herself after it. She felt too tired to eat or think of a fire, and possessed no dry fuel in any case. She slept, half buried in dry leaves.
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