The Hanged Man: Part 9: Lughnasadh
Post #95: In which increase and decrease as the wheel turns ...
The next morning sunlight glared off white snow fields. The sky was clear and the snow already beginning to melt. She couldn’t see the path under the snow, but she found scuff marks a few yards away; her own tracks from the night before.
Except they weren’t her tracks. They were prints three times the size of her hand with five distinct oval toes, each topped with the deep indentation of a claw. A large white feather lay in one of the footprints.
Heks stood for a long moment. Go on, or go back? Go back down the mountain, find a way through the portal, back to Rowan Tree with her handful of marbles. Back to dance, companionship, the goats. Back to Gabriel’s kindness and a place around the fire.
Or go on and see what happened.
She pulled her pack out of the cave. It felt damp, but would dry in the sun. She shrugged into it and began to follow the footprints.
The prints led her here and there over snow fields. She found an overturned boulder and a spray of dirt fanned over the snow where the ground had been gouged. The tracks wandered into a copse of scrubby trees and she found claw marks and rotted wood debris. Near the end of the afternoon, she saw a dark shape in the distance, shambling over melting snow.
She kept it in sight, but only just. She’d heard somewhere bears had good noses but poor eyesight. She’d no desire to test either one. The bear made for a steep bank and disappeared into a cave.
Heks, seeing this, edged into a fold of bare mountainside for cover. Years of rocks moved by wind and weather created a variety of niches and holes, and Heks found one giving some shelter from the weather.
She had food. In fact, she’d been unwilling to take as much as Maria pressed on her. She had several strips of dried meat, dried fruit, chestnuts and one of the first cheeses they’d tried to make from goat’s milk, wrapped in leaves. It was sticky and runny, smelling strongly of goat and a handful of chopped herbs.
What was she doing here?
That night she woke suddenly to the sound of fumbling movement outside her shelter. She froze, holding her breath. Something large moved outside in the dark, circling. She heard a “whuff” of exhaled breath and the sounds moved off. She rolled over and inched her head out of the cave.
Nothing. The night sky was filled with stars. Cion loomed, protective, and Noola, a slim crescent, lay on her back. Patches of snow reflected silver light. Cautiously, she pulled on her cloak and shoes. Standing under the vast darkness gave her a momentary sense of vertigo. The night seemed to wheel over her — or perhaps Webbd moved under her. Then her sense of balance came back and the feeling vanished. The bear crouched on a flat slab of rock, halfway between Heks and its cave. As she watched, it stood on its back legs, heavy paws dangling, and roared at the sky.
It looked as tall as a tree, as tall as a mountain, tall enough to be sprinkled with stardust. It reached up with one massive paw and clawed at the star-spangled night. Its paw fell, and Heks watched a glittering handful of stars fall with it. No, not stars, for they glowed red like rubies, like drops of blood, falling with a soft pattering around the bear’s hind feet on the stone.
Again, it roared. Heks could see the wet red mouth, the strong white teeth. As it raised its snout, she saw the shape of a sickle moon on its chest. It gathered and reflected the light like the snow did, pale as bone.
The paw rose and fell in a shower of diamond light that fell clicking solidly on the stone like…
Heks took a step forward.
The bear roared triumphantly and brought its front feet heavily down to the rock, making the mountainside shake. It nosed at the shining sparks at its feet, drew its claws over the stone with a scraping sound that chilled Heks’ blood, and the rock slab glowed with white and red embers…sparks…stars…crystals of frost and snow…jeweled blood…galaxies of blood and bone and diamond dust.
Heks took another step. She reached into her pocket and the marbles leapt into her hand.
She came across the snow, an old woman, scanty-haired, dry as bone, lean as worn rawhide. She came to the feet of the Sickle Moon Bear and flung her handful of marbles among his.
Above them, a white owl drifted like a dream under the slender moon.
Rapunzel hadn’t expected to begin learning to play drums in a bathhouse.
After stepping out of Rowan Tree, she’d fallen through air into water, and then found herself swimming, Vasilisa still beside her, rising to a new surface in another place. Above her, Rusalka pulled themselves out of the water, along with Morfran and Sofiya. Then she and Vasilisa broke the surface and scrambled out of the pool.
Morfran and Sofiya settled her in a rude log cabin. Morfran showed her how to use the iron stove, pointed out a pile of firewood and a heap of skins and blankets, and left her, saying Sofiya would meet her in the morning.
The next morning Sofiya did appear, but took her back to the bathhouse. There wasn’t a drum in sight, but the other Rusalka lay naked in heat and steam in between frequent visits to the plunge pool.
Rapunzel, lying among beings of skin, feather, scale and fur, closed her eyes and opened herself to the ritual.
That night they took her to the drums.
It was another dancing floor, this time in a naked birch wood. Winter was closer here than it had been at Rowan Tree. Oddly, the floor itself felt comfortably warm, as though heated from below.
Vasilisa had taken an affectionate leave of Rapunzel, assuring her she was in good hands. Morfran was absent, and so was Baba Yaga, to Rapunzel’s secret relief.
The Rusalka introduced her to the stringed instrument and pipe first. The strings were pulled tight on a wooden frame and plucked. The pipe proved to be a simple shaft of hollow bone, pierced. One end looked as though it had once been fractured, but the maker made no attempt to disguise the break, merely polishing the jagged ends smooth.
Rapunzel handled both, tentatively strumming and blowing.
A pair of drums stood alone, shaped like elongated small barrels. They were elevated to play standing, but Rapunzel saw they might also be played from a sitting position. The drum heads were taut and smooth with use.
“These were mine,” said Sofiya, brushing a hand across one of the heads. “My teacher gave them to me. Now I pass them to you. They won’t play for you now, though.”
“You must make them yours. Now they contain my pulse, my tides. They know the shape of my hand. They’ve rolled in my scent. They know me more intimately than a lover. We’re bound by shared feeling and experience.”
“How do I make them mine?”
“Be with them. Remember how you felt during the dance at Rowan Tree?”
“That was a place of being, a place of complete union with body. Words are important, and so is mind. But music and dance don’t arise out of words or mind. The only thing strong enough to support full life is being, body. Many people learn to play music through practice, instruction, a set of static repetitions meant to teach competency and mastery. Competency and mastery are not being. They’re constructions of our mind and thus limited, intangible. Technical power is false power.”
“If I can dance like I did before, I can play?”
“Yes. As you danced, did you feel in control? Did you feel a master?”
“No. I felt…swept up in power. We were all part of it, and the music, too. It wasn’t mastery. It was like,” she remembered diving off a sunny weathered pier into a lake, “diving…or jumping…or flying.”
“Yes! Surrender to myself and the other dancers, surrender to the drumbeat.”
“True music is not a thing to be mastered. True music requires real presence, real being. True music is like the White Lady. It can’t be controlled or commanded. If you give yourself to it, it will give itself to you.”
Sofiya began to play, rolling her hands from palm to edge, stroking the drums. The rhythm was slow, explorative. The skin on her hands and the drum head lingered near one another. She increased the beat and used her fingers, making a sharper, more defined sound. Her hands looked graceful, flowing, reminding Rapunzel of Maria’s hands at the loom. Sofiya’s hands released the drum beat rather than created it.
The strings rippled, joined by the pipe.
“Let us dance the day down into darkness, sisters,” said Sofiya, raising her voice.
The day was pewter. Color had faded and lay in damp mats around the trees’ ankles. The forest snarled, row upon row of naked white trunks like teeth. Sky, tree, earth, were a study in monochrome.
The Rusalka danced. This was not a dance of passionate sensuality, but a dance of decrease, a dance of bare bone and stark wood, a dance of death in its final cold hour. Gilt was rubbed away. Silver was tarnished. This was stone, lichen, root, owl screech, hoof print and musk.
Rapunzel gave herself to being, to breath, pulse, hair, skin. She set her mind aside and allowed. She didn’t know which of her bodies she danced in — and didn’t care. Around her moved ivory tusk, grey pelt, russet bristles, feathers like smoke. A snake twined around their feet, color of old leaf and wood. She danced with her hair, shoulders, elbows, knees, breasts and feet. She shed her clothes, wanting no hindrance to being. She was. She danced. She took her place in a net of being, tree, woman, root, drum, sleeping plant, plucked string, bird, flute, wolf. She became their power and they became hers.
The drums stood solitary, waiting. Sofiya danced, golden eye, wing, thigh, hair like feathers. Another drummer played on other drums. Rapunzel moved toward the waiting drums, dancing. She circled, front, back, offering her body between her own cupped hands. She rubbed against the drums’ sides with thigh and knee. She let them feel the flesh of her buttocks, coarse caress of her pubic hair. She leaned over them and felt her nipples harden against their heads as her body swayed to the music. She rubbed the round edges with her armpits, licked the palm of her hands and polished the heads. She reached between her legs and painted her wet scent on the drums with her fingers. She laid her cheek on the heads and smelled herself.
Closing her eyes, she gave her skin the shape of the drums through hands, arms and thighs. She ran her fingernails lightly over the drum heads as though over the skin of a lover’s back. Without intention or plan, her fingers tapped around the edges of the heads, circling inward in a slow spiral. The drum heads talked to her hands in a private conversation her ears didn’t hear.
Suddenly bold, she hit one of the heads lightly with both hands, “BOOM, boom!”
At once, she felt embarrassed. She wasn’t in rhythm with the music the others played. They would hear, and know her for unskilled, remember she wasn’t one of them.
The music stopped. The dancers stopped.
It was Sofiya, winged but otherwise a woman.
Rapunzel, feeling like a shamed child, near tears, met her eyes.
“Your mind will tear you away from being. It will interrupt you, amputate you from your body. It will do the same to those around you, because their being is a threat as much as yours. You must share and exchange power with music and dance. Your mind is what requires mastery. Let it serve you, but don’t give it more power than it can handle. Your body holds the power, your being.”
Rapunzel laid a hand on a drum head like a woman laying a protective hand over her unborn child.
The Rusalka’s music began again, flute, then strings, then drums, steady, grounding, reassuring as a heartbeat.
The dance, the music flowed together again, as though no interruption had occurred. Rapunzel stepped away from the drums and danced, circling, whirling, spiraling, the drums always at the center. When she’d found herself again, steadied herself in the arms of the dance, she approached the drums once more, hands open to receive, to set free.
The drums’ voice was like a toy. She rolled it between her hands to see what it could do. She made it shout and murmur, ripple and throb. She used elbows, forearms, fingers, nails, palms. She stroked and brushed, beat and tapped. She stopped dancing without realizing it, engrossed as a child. She and the drums imitated the strings, the bone flute, and then joined hands with the other drumbeat. She and the drums overran, faltered, lost rhythm and found it again. They lagged behind and raced ahead. They danced.
The other side of harvest, Mary thought, was a shorn landscape of bony trees and bleached stubble on November’s cheek. A flock of crows like brittle cinders jostled in the air.
In the cart behind Dar, Mary and Lugh lay together. Rowan Tree lay behind them, weeks behind. They’d left when the trees still wore bright colors. Heks, Vasilisa, Morfran, Sofiya and several Rusalka had gone through Rowan Gate. Mary wondered where they were and what they were doing. Later that same day, Persephone and Demeter had gone, and Mary knew it was time for her to go forward as well.
Over the last weeks Mary and Lugh had been a perfect balance of increase and decrease. Drop by drop, he gave of his vitality, garnering the cycle’s harvest. Day by day, he lessened, skin a little looser, hair a little more colorless, back a little more bent. With blade, shear, knife and shovel, he gathered season’s abundance, paying with his flesh, his blood, his bone.
Mary stayed by his side, picking fruit, bringing food and drink to the reapers, helping sort and store vegetables, and gathering seed for the next cycle. Nausea and fatigue passed and she supported Lugh with her own healthy vitality, rich in tenderness and love. The two within, the man beside her and harvest’s labor and delivery became her sole occupations.
Yet even as he saw the harvest through, he doubted himself.
“If something happens to me, you’ll take care of them?” he asked Dar, over and over.
“Yes,” said Dar patiently. “You know I will. I’ll see her safe. I promise.”
“I’m afraid I’ll run out of the strength to take care of everything properly,” he said to Mary in the midst of scything field after field of barley, oats and wheat. He was sharpening his blade, hands callused and brown, sweat staining his shirt. “There’s still so much to do, and we need to find a place for you to spend the winter.”
“Lugh,” she said patiently. “Look around you. Think what you’ve done the past weeks. You’ve gotten them started at Rowan Tree. They have plenty for the winter now. You’ve been the first to rise and the last to sleep every place we’ve been. I’m healthy and well and your children are thriving. Men follow you, learning and working together. Women adore you. Everywhere you go, people are assured of a safe winter. We’ve done well, you and I. The seed we blessed means life for these people through the winter and new life during the deepest dark. The seed we’ve shared has made two new lives!”
“I didn’t believe her, because I didn’t think she knew how exhausted I really was,” said the Hanged Man. A passing shower from a bruised cloud spattered the bare tree and Mirmir’s body with icy drops.
“Foolish,” said Mirmir, twisting himself into a contorted knot and then relaxing, as though stretching. “She knew. She believed in you.”
“She was stronger than me.”
“Yess,” agreed Mirmir slyly, “and better looking, too.”
“For a girl. But all the girls looked at me, once,” the Hanged Man sighed. “Go on. Tell it all the way to the end, Mirmir.”
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