What do Anansi, Raven, Coyote, Pérák, Aradia, the Golem of Prague, Robin Hood, Wild Edric, and Ned Ludd have in common? They are all folk heroes of resistance to tyranny, oppression, slavery, and fascism.
This is part 2 of this story. You probably want to read Part 1: The Gift of Naughtiness, first.
The kids at the fundamentalist bootcamp for LGBT children were slogging through the mud on yet another early morning run. They could see their breath freezing in the wintry air. They were running along the perimeter fence when they saw a glimmer of light through the trees.
Sally, a transgender kid from Oklahoma, nudged her friend Tim in the ribs. “Look – rainbows!” she said.
“Quiet at the back there, Samuel,” called out the youth leader, old-naming Sally.
Tim and Sally slowed to a jog to look at the curious phenomenon of the rainbow glimmers coming down from the sky, twisting and turning on the wind. The glimmers were clearly invisible to the youth leader, who ran on, oblivious.
The other kids started to notice the glimmers too. Gaby, a lesbian from Kentucky, smiled for the first time in weeks. The glimmers flitted about the children’s heads, and finally settled on their tongues. Each child tasted their favourite flavour – sherbet, marshmallow, chocolate, pistachio ice-cream. As they swallowed the delicious magic, they felt a warming, loving feeling inside them. The world was suddenly brighter. The judgmental God they had been told hated them and their kind receded from their minds, and they knew that their way of loving and being was right and good and beautiful.
Now that they had tasted the magic, they could also see the wind-being who brought the magic. The wind-being smiled at them, and ruffled the trees outside the perimeter fence. A shaft of sunlight illuminated a path through the woods.
Later that night, they held a secret meeting in the dormitory.
“We’ve got to escape,” said Tim.
“Too right,” said Gaby. “But how?”
“Weapons of mass distraction,” said Sally.
“I’ve got it,” said Cal, a bisexual boy from Arkansas. “We raid the pharmacy and put drugs in the staff food.”
“There’s enough sedatives in there to knock out a herd of elephants,” said Che (her given name was Charity, but she preferred Che, and had often worn a black beret in honour of the revolutionary leader, before it was confiscated by her right-wing parents).
“What will we do if we actually succeed in escaping?” asked Tim.
“I escaped before,” said Josh, an older kid. “I got caught, but the thing to do is to get onto a long-distance freight train. There’s a railroad track with a junction not that far away. If we can make it to there, we can get onto the freight cars while the train has stopped.”
The next day, the plan went into action just before breakfast, which was when sedatives were normally administered. Sally started overthrowing the tables in the dining room, scattering breakfast trays and cutlery and bowls everywhere. The other kids soon got the idea and joined in. Under cover of this distraction, which had most of the staff trying to calm things down, Che snuck into the pharmacy and stole the sedatives (her father was a pharmacist so she knew the names of the drugs to look for).
The rest of the morning was spent in an emergency prayer and healing session, with the staff laying hands on the kids and trying to exorcise the ‘demons’ that had clearly gotten into them.
The rainbow glimmers of vintage eighteenth century naughtiness were not to be defeated, however. They filled the kids with secret glee, and strengthened their feelings of validation.
The kids were also required to help with chores around the centre, and today Gaby was on kitchen duty. Che slipped her the packets of sedatives just before the duty started at 11:30, and told her what dosage to use.
Tim was in the handicraft workshop with the other boys, and was able to steal a small pair of wire cutters from the tool cupboard.
Back in the kitchen, Miriam, a normally quiet girl from Tennessee, pretended to faint. While the cook was distracted by that, Gaby passed out the packets of sedatives to the other girls, and they quickly put them in the celery soup, but not the tomato soup which most of the kids preferred.
At 12 o’clock, seemingly demure and biddable, the girls served the soup to the staff in the dining room. It wasn’t long before the staff were all slipping into slumber, snoring in their chairs. The kids stole more food from the kitchen, and slipped quietly out of the building. They ran towards the perimeter fence where the glimmers of magic had arrived. Tim cut through the perimeter fence with the wire cutters, and they headed for the path through the woods which had been illuminated by the shaft of sunlight the day before.
“So we have escaped, but now what?” asked Jacob, one of the younger kids, who had not been in on the original plan.
Josh explained about his plan to get on a passing freight train, and about the safe-houses in various more liberal cities, which he had been making for when he got caught and sent back to the bootcamp.
It wasn’t long before they got to the railroad track. As they came out of the trees and into the area beside the track which had been cleared to prevent forest fires, the wind brought them more of the rainbow glimmers. The tiny sparks of joy descended on each child who had not yet received one, and they too knew the happiness experienced by the others.
Che began to sing softly, a song from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. “Don’t dream it, be it…” The other kids soon joined in, even the ones who didn’t know the song.
It wasn’t long before they heard the mournful double hoot of a train in the distance. What met their eyes as the train got nearer was totally unexpected, though: it was a circus train. And riding on the roof of the first carriage was a being of light, dancing for joy to see the effects of his plan. It was Joulutonttu, brought by the wind-spirits to see the joyful sight of the children breaking out of the bootcamp.
As Josh had predicted, the train stopped at the junction. Among the circus folk was Cady, an artiste of high calibre. The circus was not the kind of circus with animals, but the kind with acrobats, and jugglers, and fire-eaters, and dancers. They were on their way from New Orleans to New York. Cady knew immediately where the children had escaped from; he recognised their beige uniforms from the time he had spent at the same bootcamp many years before. He had been experiencing feelings of distress for some time as the train drew nearer to the place. He jumped down from the train.
“Have you escaped from David House?” he asked.
The children were a bit hesitant to answer. They feared that they might get sent back, even now, even with Joulutonttu in plain sight on the roof of the train.
“Of course you have,” said Cady. “Get on board the train, quickly, and let’s get the hell out of here!”
The children clambered onto the train, and were welcomed by the circus people, many of whom had experienced similar sad things in their own childhoods. Tia Estella, the acrobat, found them suitable costumes from the circus’ store of spangly tights and sequinned tops. Sally pirouetted in her new outfit, and sighed happily. Soon the children and the circus people were exchanging stories, sharing food, and working out how the children could be incorporated into the circus performance.
Joulutonttu flitted amongst the passengers, spreading magic and laughter.
If you want to know more about kids who escape from fundamentalist bootcamps, I recommend the excellent novel Hidden by Tomas Mournian, who has also made documentaries about these awful places.
You might also like to find out about, and donate to, the excellent organisation Truth Wins Out, which campaigns against “gay conversion therapy”. The executive director, Wayne Besen, recently wrote:
Some people, particularly parents, feel conversion therapy is safe and there is no harm if their child gives it a try. In reality, such rejection of self can be psychologically devastating and leave lasting mental scars that must be undone with real therapy. The single worst decision a parent can make is forcing their child into conversion therapy. Still, a demand often fueled by religious fervor inevitably creates a pool of religious ideologues or greedy practitioners who bilk desperate and vulnerable clients with promises of healing or an elusive cure. This is why conversion therapy must be banned for minors in all 50 states. I urge everyone to get behind such noble efforts that protect teenagers and put conversion con artists out of business.
Yuletide was approaching, and the elven helpers of the Yulefather, who goes by many names (Old Father Christmas, Captain Christmas, the Lord of Misrule, Joulupukki, St Nicholas, and other names unknown to humankind) were preparing the magic to send out gifts of magic to human children.
Contrary to popular folklore, it is not the actual Christmas presents that are delivered by the old man with the sleigh, but more intangible gifts: the ability to see magic and mystery in the world; the ability to play, to laugh, to sing, and to be merry.
A sparkling, tangled, constantly shifting and changing cloud of magical energy was forming around Korvatunturi, the magic hill in Finland where Old Father Christmas lives. Occasionally it would get out of control, and the sky over much of the Northern hemisphere would be filled with great sweeping curtains of green and purple light. It is said that Korvatunturi is shaped like an ear, so that Old Father Christmas can hear the wishes of children.
The elves were getting ready to carry the magic to all parts of the Earth when they heard a terrible rumour. The children of North America were being beset with a hideous interloper, designed to crush the curiosity and magic out of children: the Elf on the Shelf. This simpering red impostor would move around the house, keeping an eye on the children’s behaviour, and reporting their behaviour back to “Santa Claus” – a red-clad impostor representing the spirit of consumerism and capitalism, who seeks to supplant Old Father Christmas in human hearts.
When this news reached the ears of Old Father Christmas, he was furious. “That red-clad impostor!” he roared. “That stalker, that peeping Tom! Not content with tormenting children with his voyeuristic tendencies, now he sends his minions out to do it! That is the final dollop of reindeer poop! It’s war.”
The elves all cheered wildly. At last they would see off those horrible impostors, the Elfs on the Shelf. For of course, a real elf doesn’t have a simpering expression and a little red suit. A real elf is a lithe wisp of energy, and can manifest in many different forms, so the elves were deeply offended at these interlopers, and worried that human children would stop believing in elves and faeries as a consequence of these caricatures.
Joulutonttu was the youngest elf – the one all the others regarded as a bit flighty and irresponsible. He decided to do something special to prove himself to the others. He would liberate human children from those little red monsters once and for all.
He went into the restricted section of Old Father Christmas’s library of magical tomes. He clearly needed something special. He worked his way through several tomes, getting quite dusty and cobwebby in the process. The stack of discarded volumes grew bigger: the section of the Kalevala dealing with the forging of the Sampo was stacked regretfully on the discard pile along with several long-lost grimoires that human magicians would dearly love to get their hands on.
At last he gave up on the library, and wandered off in search of Krampus – who, contrary to popular belief, rewards children for having an independent spirit and not being blindly obedient. He wandered all around the underground caverns of Korvatunturi, where the elves were hard at work massaging the dollops of magic and mystery into manageable packages which could be sent along the ancient trackways through the forests. Finally he found Krampus in the observatory on the peak of Korvatunturi.
“I don’t like it,” muttered Krampus to himself. “Those children are getting forgetful of the old magic. Not enough freedom to wander about and find things out for themselves, I reckon.”
Joulutonttu waited patiently while Krampus finished his observations.
“Ah, hello there, small elf,” said Krampus, looking over the spectacles on the end of his nose.
“Hello, Krampus,” said Joulutonntu. “I was looking for a way to save the human children from those horrible Elfs on the Shelf. I was thinking you might have an idea.”
“There are indeed some disturbing currents in the magic,” said Krampus. “The humans are too cruel, too greedy, too focussed on things. Most of them don’t care about the old ways any more. Those Elfs on the Shelf are a manifestation of their overwhelming desire to control everything.”
“But surely the children still have a tiny spark of magic?” asked Joulutonttu.
“Some of them do,” said Krampus. “But I believe I might have just the thing. Come with me.” He got up from behind the vast array of brass telescopes, finely calibrated sensors equipped with red feathers for measuring kindness and justice levels (many indicated critically low levels of either), and stomped off towards the door. Joulutonttu half-ran, half-flitted along behind him.
They walked down many winding stairs, through ornately carved doors, down into the deep caverns below Korvatunturi. They went through three doors bound with wrought-iron sigils (something of a trial for Joulutonttu, as elves hate iron), which had signs written in Runic, Old Gothic, and Finnish reading “High energy magic area – enter at your own risk”.
Finally, behind the last door, Joulutonttu beheld a vast cauldron full of shimmering, twisting energy, constantly changing colour from purple to green to blue. “What is it?” he asked.
“This, my friend, is pure vintage eighteenth-century naughtiness,” said Krampus. “The finest distilled essence of the childhood naughtiness of revolutionaries, the Luddites, William Blake, the Romantic poets, the Lunar Men, the early feminists – their moments of rebellion, their high-spirited games, their visions, and their flights of fancy.”
“Are we going to release this into the wild?” asked Joulutonttu excitedly.
“That’s exactly what we will do,” said Krampus. “Humans need a wake-up call – they are sleepwalking into an apocalypse on a tide of consumerism. This ought to stir things up a bit.”
“How do we release it?” asked Joulutonttu. “And how do we know it will get to the right children?”
“Ah, that’s the clever part,” said Krampus. “Each of these wisps of naughtiness will waft around on the winds until they find the human heart that will make a warm and welcoming nest for them – and then they will make that heart glow with merry wildness.”
“Let’s get to work!” said Joulutonttu.
So they carefully carried the cauldron up to the topmost peak of Korvatunturi. They summoned the spirits of the four winds, Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr and Durathrór.
“But it’s not Yule yet,” protested Dvalinn. “Why have you summoned us?” So Krampus and Joulutonttu explained what they wanted.
The four winds sniffed the contents of the cauldron appreciatively. “Ah, haven’t smelt naughtiness like that in many a long year,” said Durathrór. “It takes me right back to the Luddite rebellion, that. Heady days.”
“Oh yes,” agreed Duneyrr. “This is no ordinary naughtiness – this is the true spirit of freedom and creativity. Almost Promethean, that is.”
“Oh yes, Prometheus. They don’t make ‘em like that any more,” said Dáinn.
The winds agreed to carry the glimmers of naughtiness to everywhere they were needed, and soon the sky was full of many-coloured glittering threads, like sparks being carried aloft from a bonfire.
If you see a tiny wisp of light, perhaps out of the corner of your eye, it might be one of those very special glimmers – and maybe it’s just for you. So open your heart and hope that it makes its nest there.
Update: Part 2 of this story, The Taste of Magic, is now published.
What if Planned Parenthood is defunded and shut down– where should women and men go for the other 97% of funded services PP currently provides?
What if we notice a dropped stitch? What if we don’t?
What if we’re all more genderfluid than we admit?
What if sexuality isn’t a wound?
What if the nuclear family is not the only available model? What if it isn’t the best?
What if Black lives matter?
What if a question mark is a fish hook?
What if abortion is allowed to be an ambivalent and uneasy act, safe and legal?
What if women live into their sexualities as a source of power with, not power over?
What if men do that too?
What if you could say how unhappy you are?
What if a woman’s voice is the tree falling in the forest?
What if women’s voices weave another forest?
Epistemology of Mother, A Cloud of Permeable or #PinkOut
Wendy Vardaman and Sarah Sadie
Few topics have stirred as much passionate response
now there is a plank in the platform of the Republican party denying any place
in the short time I’ve belonged to this listserv as the one that exploded over the seemingly innocuous color pink, and
for abortion even in cases of rape or incest. This feels like the final thundering chord (although I know
although I didn’t join the discussion, I, too, feel strongly about the subject. Reading the posts on the color
it’s not—there is so much more they could try to do, try to take from us) of their grand crescendo,
and its associations—Cinderella, Barbies, stickers,
building for a year now. A year when
I was surprised by the emotional and political
terms such as “birth control”
connotations it carries
“sluts” “vaginal ultrasounds” “vaginas” have been bandied about
for so many of us and disturbed by the way
we debate the difference between “legitimate” and “forcible” as applied to
pink got tossed back and forth as if it were some uniform monolith
the act of rape.
when a moment’s reflection serves to demonstrate this obvious fact: pink is not one color.
What other qualifiers shall we hear?
My pinks are mostly dark, vivid, intense, like the other hues that fill the house of a recovering depressive
At last now we have it out: all abortion, any abortion, is never to be condoned, never to be pardoned,
avoiding medication. Color like exercise gives me a lift, so I have it everywhere and in unlikely combinations
never to be considered and never to be allowed. All of this has me walking in a cloud of permeable
that would probably overwhelm many people. Pink in multiple manifestations happens to be a favorite,
sadness, like a mist. It plunges me back to a time a few years ago
although I don’t like the pale variety by itself, any more than large doses of other pastels. I do feel nostalgic
when these questions were live for me on a very personal level. One summer evening, blue sky endless,
looking at 1960s’ hot pink—my mother wouldn’t paint my bedroom that color decades ago,
my husband and I were out for a neighborhood walk. It was
attempting to satisfy me with a bright pink velvet pillow for my orange bedspread. Years later I painted
the sort of weather, the sort of evening, that draws people out of their homes and out into their yards
my dining room an intense sockeye-salmon swirled with orange, a nod to the years my husband and I lived
and the streets and sidewalks. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but
in Seattle, and saved my favorite deep pink for the kitchen,
for a number of days I had been wrestling with
patterning walls and cabinets with combinations of
difficult questions. Finally, I turned to him in the middle of the
fuchsia, yellow, lavender and deep red-violet. Dabbling in textiles I’ve paired pink with navy and turquoise, and
sidewalk, stopped for a moment, and said “I have come to a decision. If I ever were to get
lavender, blue, and red in hand-woven table-runners. I’ve sewn curtains, pillow covers, and clothes that include its different shades and echo those
pregnant again, I would abort the baby.” And then I broke down crying, there on the street.
in my great-grandmothers’ quilts hanging on the living room walls.
This piece was written in collaboration with my colleague and friend, Wendy Vardaman. I am so grateful for her ideas, her example and her friendship.
My daughter wrote me a poem for Mother’s Day:
Mom, I love you the blackest!
I love you the color of a mystery cave.
I love you the color of a blackbird singing its territory.
A summer midnight.
A bat’s wings.
And an evening talk with no meaning.
(Yes, I’m proud.)
“You really describe black so people can feel how bright and beautiful it is,” I told her.
“I know,” she said with rapture in her voice. “Isn’t black wonderful?” And it’s true. She has always loved black. When she was two she took her black crayola marker and (re) colored our living room couch (usually sage green) black. She was very proud.
The next day after school she came back and said to me, “No one understands about black.”
“You can help them understand,” I told her. “By writing poems and stories. By making art. You can share your thoughts about how warm and comforting, how strong and glorious black is.”
One of the tropes I am most tired of is the binary opposition of “light/good/white” versus “dark/bad/black.” This is everywhere in our language and culture, and especially deeply entrenched when we talk about religion, soul, spirit, knowledge and wisdom.
Darkness nurtures the seed, the babe. The dark nests us all when we sleep. Dark allows us space to mourn, and also space to grow, to change, to cast off an old skin and try on a new. Night is the nurturing mother of us all.
Light without dark is the intolerable bright glare of torture and interrogation. We need our shadows. We need the dark. We need black.
And those of us who are makers, writers, story tellers, artists, songwriters and creatives of all stripes, we have a responsibility to help our culture(s) rethink this binary. We need to find a way to embrace black, and the trope of darkness. We need to remember—and to say, repeatedly—that light (and white) is not always good and beneficent.
This is not about race.
This is about race.
I just got back a week ago from AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs)’s annual conference. (You can check out the action at Twitter. Search on #AWP15) The Minneapolis hotel didn’t run out of alcohol (that has happened in the past) but they did have a run on the tabouleh in the first 24 hours. Well, with approximately 15,000 writers in town, you’re going to run out of something.
Maybe there’s something about being (lost) among that sea of writers that has me thinking about the Hero’s Journey. I could have used a clever animal sidekick or a pair of magic scissors or something. Or maybe it’s just another way for me to think about shaping this story I’m always trying to write. Or this life I’m trying to live. Living the life, writing the book…same project, as far as I can tell.
Joseph Campbell picked up where Jung left off and got us all thinking of the Hero’s Quest or Journey as an archetypal form we could overlay onto our own lives. He outlined the steps of the Journey. I’ve seen it stated slightly differently in different places, but here is one model:
- Hero as outcast/outsider.
- Hero called to adventure.
- Hero refuses the call.
- Hero meets mentor (supernatural aid, spirit guide, etc).
- Hero “crosses the threshold,” embarks/leaves ordinary life behind.
- Hero undergoes a series of tests on the path.
- Hero meets the love that has greatest significance, is all-encompassing, all-meaningful. Campbell called this meeting the Goddess.
- Hero meets the Temptress, in the temptation to fall from his Quest.
- Hero faces ultimate challenge/greatest fear.
- Hero gains the gift or treasure, the fulfillment of the Quest.
- Hero returns home, with treasure.
- Hero faces one final test.
- Hero comes into his own, is crowned King or otherwise recognized in community.
Wikipedia tells me Campbell borrowed Joyce’s term “monomyth” for this. And like monotheism, the “monomyth” has a pronoun problem. Campbell wasn’t so great on the wimminfolk, as you can tell from the above steps. The Hero for him was always a boy or man. True love is represented by “the Goddess,” and tempation likewise takes the figure of a woman. Towards the end of his career (I read this anecdote from The Sound of a Silver Horn, by Kathleen Noble—a great book on women and the Hero’s Journey for anyone interested), a young woman asked him in class, “What about women?” Campbell answered, “Women are the Mother, the Goddess, the Beloved…what more do you want?” “I want to go on an adventure,” she said. “I’m glad I’m retiring,” was his reply.
Let’s diversify the Journey.
What if the Hero is not an outcast? What if she is enmeshed in her community at the start of the story? What launches her out of her comfort zone and onto the Path? Is there an archetypal moment of rejection, and would this come from within or from without? Or is she just bored? Is that enough? What if she has children? What if she has an older relative she’s taking care of? What if she is the head of the PTO?
And what happens to her at the end? A wise man may be a king. A wise woman is almost always a witch. Mind you, I’m down with that. A woman (anyone) who listens to a wilder song and has truly gained wisdom from that will not be welcome back into a community structured by patriarchy. This is why the witch lives at the edge of town, or deep in the woods. This is an essential difference which does not have to be gender specific.
Stretching our imaginations to re-vision the Hero’s Journey is helpful to writers as we think about plots…but larger than that, if the Journey is an archetype we all may follow in how we think about and understand our lives, there needs to be a diversity of possible paths. Not everyone wants to be king. Not everyone wants to end up married and happily ever after.
If we follow Jungian thought, archetypally, a “king” has been understood to represent someone who is healthily centered, who has embraced their own shadow and is able to rule themselves wisely. Maybe a “witch” is someone who purposefully and deliberately uncenters. Who pushes into the margins, the boundaries, who camps on the edge. Who insists there is still, ever, much of the self she doesn’t yet know.
What would it be to be both?
I suppose, if I want to be orderly about this, I should outline the reasons I took an extended leave first.
But I don’t want to be orderly…
I’m sure I don’t remember them all…
Maybe I wasn’t even there at the time…
So I’m skipping ahead to what brought me back to this space. We’ll fill in the backstory another time.
A nice thing happened this week—Junoesq, an online magazine from Singapore, published this interview with me, along with a handful of
new poems (one of which, “Small But Real,” was inspired by conversation with Niki Whiting of Witch’s Ashram). The compliment was welcome. This year I’ve wondered deeply about the worth of my own voice—others speak so much more immediately and profoundly to current events and crises.
But…Junoesq’s editor, Grace Chia, reached out to me for the interview after I sent her a few poems out of the blue. They struck an immediate chord with her, as another writer trying to balance motherhood, profession, the nature of a literary calling, and public vs. private persona. Halfway around the world, and yet…same old, same old story. Sigh.
And then, checking out the 1988 book Sacred Dimensions of Women’s Experience, edited by Elizabeth Dodson Gray, I’m struck by how many things have not changed. Women (and men) still struggle to place value on domesticity. We still struggle to love our bodies as they age, thicken, change. We still struggle to insist that our lives have worth, as individuals, as women, no matter our work, our size, our appearance, our voice, or the money we make (or do not make).
So—yes, there are many radical and beloved and ferocious warriors whose voices I treasure above my own. And that doesn’t absolve me from writing my truth. Both. And.
Then, too, I’m writing a novel. Trying to. Daring myself. This is a new adventure and it has me thinking about different kinds of writing, what they are useful for, how they work. Poetry vs. prose. Fiction vs. nonfiction. Where are the fissures and faultlines between “fact” and “truth.” As I work along on my fictional endeavor, it brings me back to this blog. Blogging is even another form of writing, after all, which I have only begun to explore. Writing in here offers its own strengths, its own opportunities.
Did I mention I’m working on a novel? At least partly because of one book: The Priestess and the Pen. “Give me blood and magic,” author Sonja Sadovsky writes in the opening pages. I have to agree. In this space, I don’t have to pretend the blood isn’t real. I don’t have to apologize for the term “magic.” No animals will be harmed in the writing of this column, I promise—although I make a special exception for mosquitoes. (Bonus: Jason Mankey interviews Sadovsky at Raise the Horns!)
A fox showed up in our backyard the other day. I want to find a place once again among people who know 1) the fox doesn’t care about my work and 2) the fox is telling me to get cracking.
So here I am, returned. As Sadovsky writes:
Ultimately, the woman with the sword is the woman with the pen; the one who wields it creates her reality.
I took the time I needed. And I remembered that for me, the answer is almost always both/and. Yes.
The question is courage.
Small candle, Mind-Forge, help me fly
Through thorn, to World Tree nine worlds high,
What Was, Is, Will Be:
Three Sisters stand by me.
Light a candle, my love, a small mindfire to prick the growing night. For all this starts with a story. Not a pretty or happy story, but one that is True…
Once not so long ago, or very long ago indeed, or maybe not until next week…
there was a god who wanted to try his luck as a man. It happens now and again, and there’s always a story to come of it.
This particular man had two brothers, and the three of them were fortunately enough (and that is very fortunate indeed, bad luck or good) to marry three sisters. Nine years they all lived happily enough, and then the sisters flew, called off by their father to far fields of battle. Nine years have we been together, nine years will we be apart, they told their mates. Never seek us, never search us out. We will come back to you. And off they flew, crying and calling to war.
Now the man’s two brothers could not abide to live with their grief and solitude, and they urged the young man to come with them and chase their wives, bring them back to home. But the young man trusted his wife to come back as she said she would, and he urged his brothers to have patience. This they could not, and so they said good bye to the young man, and went to seek their wives. With one thing and another, those two quickly met their deaths, for you cannot chase after what has flown away from you and ever come to any good.
The young man knew nothing of this, however. He turned to the hills, and found within them ore and jewels, and month by month and year by year he practiced a lonely craft as smith. It wasn’t long until he became so skilled at his art, that his reputation spread throughout the land and his small house filled up with treasures of his own making.
Now it happened…
that a neighboring King heard of the renown and reputation of the Smith. How could he not, when rumors ran across the country? No smith so skilled as he, travelers told the King. And none so wealthy, either. All by himself he lives, just him, alone, in a house full of gold rings, chains, and hammered armor all of utmost skill and craft.
The King could not forget this Smith, this no one noble, once he had heard these tales. Who is this man, he asked, to have more wealth than I do? Am I not king? And for whom does he do this work, for whom does he hammer the gold and iron, if not for the king? By rights I should have him here beside me.
So the King gathered twelve of his strongest soldiers in the hall guard and together they traveled to the Smith’s small house, intending to ambush him and bring him back to the King’s hall. Luck was with them. The Smith was out hunting when they arrived. The house was empty of any person, but the stories were proved true, it was filled with gold buckles, rings, ornaments and armored magnificence. The men had time to arrange themselves in hiding.
And the King, looking around, had time to take the most beautiful ring of all and stash it in his pocket.
As it turned out…
they didn’t have long to wait. The Smith returned successful, a bear over his shoulders. In no time the thirteen had overpowered him, and without delay they tied him up and took him back to King’s great hall, his realm and home. Once there, to ensure the prisoner would not escape (for he was very strong), the King ordered his men to hamstring and hobble the Smith. Then they locked him away by himself, on an island close by. It was the Smith, his forge and anvil, a chest to keep the metals he would work, a simple bed, and very little else.
The ring he stole, the King gave to his only daughter. To his young sons he gave nothing, for he had no other stolen goods to give.
Can you imagine, now…
how the days and nights stretched on for the prisoner. Nothing but the sound of surf and seagull, the roar of the forge, the clink of his hammers. Wounds slow to heal, both outer and inner, oh my yes. Yet in his pain, his grief, his anger, he didn’t stop work. And out of that crucible, all his jeweled ornaments, all his fanciful masterpieces, went now to the King.
How long did this last? Some months? Years? How should such mortals as we, free and yet untested, measure time’s reach for one who is captive, for one who has been a god? But the Smith would have his revenge.
For as you might guess,one day…
the king’s two sons took it into their heads to row out to their prisoner. They were curious boys, and they knew the rumors of the chest of gold and other metals, they’d heard whispers of the jewels he kept to work his magic on. And after all, what gifts had they received? Did they just want to look, or were they hoping together to trick the smith, or overpower him, and steal his wealth? They didn’t tell me, my lovelies, if they were.
The Smith, healed on the outside by now, at least, welcomed them in and agreed they should see the wonders contained in the chest he kept by the forge. Eagerly, the two leaned over. And as they did, their prisoner brought down the lid with such force it severed their heads from their bodies at once. Oh, he made a clean job of it. The bodies he buried under the dirt floor of his cell. But the heads he had use for. Taking the two skulls, he veined and lined them with gold, fit fine jewels into the eye sockets, and sent the two goblets—rare beauties—to the King as a most precious gift. Delighted, the King promised they should toast the princes, when his sons returned from their bear hunt.
But you haven’t forgotten the King’s daughter, surely?
She who was gifted the Smith’s ring had broken the jewel. Worried her father would find out, she rowed out to the cell just as her brothers had, to ask him to fix it, a favor. Her he welcomed more warmly, with spiced wine. And the stories are not so clear, my dears and darlings, if that wine was drugged, or if the drink only softened her smile. But here is the truth of it: when she rowed home, the princess was carrying the Smith’s child. She might have been able to hide her broken ring, but a baby she never could. Weeping, she told her father the King what had happened.
Now the Smith flew free, for he had in the long years of captivity and anger made wings for himself, and hovering above the shocked King his enemy and captor, he admitted, laughing grimly, all he had done. He revealed the goblets’ deep secret, the fate of the princes. And he claimed the son the princess carried, and laid a charm of protection upon both her and the babe, so that the King must house and feed them, until the Smith, a god once more, came back to claim them both for his own.
And the King, broken and bereft, admitted his folly and too late regretted his acts. For the Smith’s triumph over him was utterly complete.
Keep the fire lit, a while, my loves, and get you to bed. I won’t be sleeping this night, and how the cold comes on.
And so the first debt is paid, the first promise kept.
First we draw the map.
Then we ask, who lives there?
Then we ask, who goes there?
Sometimes the map is a story.
Here is a Story, to be told when the night grows long:
Once there was a woman who every day walked a well-worn path between her house and the town center, taking her basket of work and wares to sell or trade. Her path led through a woods, but was so well-used that where she walked was quite well lit and without hazard.
One afternoon, however, she tripped on an unseen stone and fell off the path, hard, to the ground. For a moment she lay stunned on the forest floor. As she lifted herself to a sitting position, head ringing, she saw all her goods scattered around, broken and shattered, her basket torn asunder and smashed in. “Oh no,” she cried. Her work was for naught, broken and destroyed. But it was clear there was no time for crying. The woods were growing fast dark with night and, having fallen, she could no longer see the path.
“If I’m to get home, I’d better be doing it,” she said to herself. Up she rose, to make her way back as best she could but thorns caught at her clothing, tearing at it and shredding it. The sharp branches snagged at her face and hands. Disoriented by the fall, the dark, the stinging thorns, she could make no easy or quick progress, but held her hands up to protect herself from the briars and moved forward through the dark as best she could. It took some time.
By the time she emerged, she was left with only a simple shift. The rest of her clothes had fallen away, snagged on the bushes and briars. She looked around, bruised, bleeding lightly and tired. The moon had risen in the sky, a full moon, giving her light to see by. She found herself on the shore of a lake so large she could not see across. The sand was smooth and white in the moonlight. She realized how quiet the night was, now that she was out of the thorns. The only sound was the water, gently lapping at the shore in small ripples and waves. Looking to left and right, she saw the beach was quite a small clearing. The woods came right down to the water to her left and right, and there was no path to be seen. She sighed, “If I’m to swim, I’d better be doing it.” Shrugging, she stripped off the shift she wore and entered the water, naked.
It was a calm night, and the water flowed around her easily. She was surprised to find that the swimming, although it tired her, was not difficult. As she moved farther from the shore, she became aware of a strange light rising up from beneath her in the water, eerie blue and green. It scared her a little, and she determined to swim past it as quickly as possible. But swim as she might, she could not move beyond the light flickering up from under.
“Oh very well,” she thought to herself. “If I’m to dive, I’d better be doing it.” So, tucking her legs up, down she went.
The light emanated from a cave on the lake’s bottom, and from that same cave came a sweet, unearthly singing. As she neared it, she was surprised to find she could breathe in this new element. Landing on the sandy floor outside the cave, well lit by the light that spilled out around the entrance, she walked in.
She saw first a large black pot, sitting on a fire, though how there could be fire at the bottom of the lake she did not know. The flames burned green, then blue. Someone was stirring the pot, she saw, and lifting her eyes, she saw a woman returning her gaze and smiling. It was this person that was singing as she stirred the giant black cauldron. It was impossible to tell if she was young or old. The light—blue, green, fire-filled and watery by turns—was all around, emanating from the fire, or possibly from the rock walls of the cave, it was impossible to discern. It might even have been coming from the pot, or from the singer herself. It flickered and bounced through the cave, off the surfaces and through the water in a kind of dance.
The cave was warm, and strangely comfortable, and, very tired from her long walk through the woods and her swim, the woman fell asleep before she could help herself. When she woke, she was marvelously refreshed and found herself wearing a new simple garment. The singer, still at the pot, smiled to see her awake. “You must learn my songs,” she told the woman. “And you must take a turn, stirring my pot.” And so, the woman took over at the fireside and the singer taught her, line by line, the songs to sing.
Without sunlight, it was impossible for the woman to tell how much time had passed. It might have been hours, or days, a year or a hundred years. But after she had learned the singer’s songs, she knew she must be going. She was oddly reluctant to leave, and the singer seemed to know this. “You may stay with me, if you like, sister” she offered. “There is plenty of room here for two and you are a good help to me.” The woman was very tempted. It was so peaceful there, and so simple. The light that reflected through the cave was so joyful and so refreshing. She took a long breath, considering. Then she thought of her family, waiting for her in the house up above. She remembered the path she was trying to find. Regretfully, she shook her head. “Thank you, no. There is a part of me that would love to stay, but I know I must go back to the surface. And if I must go—”
“You had better be doing it,” the Singer finished for her, smiling.
The Singer acknowledged her decision with a nod, then said, “At least I can give you a gift, before you go.” And leaning close, she whispered a word to the woman and handed her a large pearl. The woman put the pearl in her pocket and kicked off up through the water once again. When she surfaced, she found she was closer than she thought to the opposite shore. Swimming hard and fast now, she gave a final push and, exhausted by the effort, crawled up onto the rocks.
After catching her breath and drying out a bit, she looked around. It was early morning. The sun was just clearing the tree tops and mist was rising off the lake. She stood up, facing the rocks she must climb over to make her way. Looking down, she was astonished to see she cast no shadow. “What is this,” she cried. “Have I died? Am I transformed to something fearful?” She fell down frightened and wept, not knowing what to do or what she was.
A small bird fluttered around her head. “Do not weep,” chirped the bird. “I have seen your shadow. It runs ahead of you, hiding in those tall rocks.” “Then I must catch it,” said the woman, and up she jumped, clambering over the rocks. To the bird, she said, “Fly ahead, and tell my shadow to wait for me.” The bird flew off as the woman climbed and scrambled.
Soon it flew back, fluttering just above her again. “Your shadow runs ahead of you. It says it fears you too much to wait for you.” “Little friend, beg it to wait. Tell it there is nothing to fear from me.” The woman said, breathless as she climbed.
The next time the bird came back, it perched on a branch while the woman caught her breath. Very quietly, the bird chirped in her ear, “Your shadow waits just behind this rock right here.” And indeed, the woman could see it peeking out around at her. Slowly, so as not to fright the slip of a thing further, so slowly she rose to face it, and said, “You have nothing to fear from, me, Shadow. Come out, and tell me why you run.”
Equally slowly, the dark shape emerged from its hiding place, pouring out larger than she had thought it. “I run from you because I am afraid of you. I remember you too well and how you kept me caged.”
The woman laughed. “But I am not myself as you remember me. You need not fear. The Singer gave me a new name.” And she spoke the whispered word, her own new name, out clear.
The woman danced a small step, happy to have her shadow back. “Small bird, I would thank you,” said the woman, “but I do not know how.”
The little bird rose from the branch to her shoulder. “If you would thank me, there is a task I need done. My nest is over a stream, but the stream has dried up,” said the bird. “If you would help clear the stream and start it flowing again, I would be grateful.”
“I owe you much. Show me the way,” said the woman.
When they arrived at the stream bed she saw it indeed was dry, choked at the source with dead wood and murky bracken. “What shall I do now,” she wept. “For this job is too big for me alone. I have no blade to clear the wood and weed, to help you, friend.”
The bird whistled a quiet song and said, “Along this path there is a Smith. Follow your way to his forge, and give him that pearl you carry and he may help you.”
The woman was loathe to lose the pearl, but she had promised to help, she knew. So, drying her eyes, she made her way through the woods. Soon, she heard the sound of a hammer hitting iron, the roar of the forge, and the hiss as hot metal met water. Approaching, she saw a low building, open to the road. In front was a clearing, and at the clearing’s center roared a large hot fire. Anvils large and small stood around. A Lady waited at the clearing’s edge with her horse, which was being shod by the smith. He was a broad man, his face ruddy from the heat, and his face, arms, hands all showed scars from his work. But his eyes were kind. The woman watched quietly as he fixed the last shoe onto the horse. Then he turned to her and said, “Hello, good woman. What brings you here this bright morning?”
The woman curtsied to the smith and Lady, both, and explained “I promised my friend the bird I would help clear the stream bed and start the water flowing again, but I have no blade to cut away the choking weeds and grass. I thought perhaps, if I paid you with this pearl, you might have some aid for me.”
The Lady nodded at her as she mounted her horse. “Friend Smith, we are done here. I thank you,” and then to the woman she said, “That stream bed is on my land as it happens. You will do me a kindness by clearing it too. You have my thanks.” So saying, she rode off into the trees.
The Smith chuckled to himself, then turned and glanced at the pearl the woman was holding. He took in his breath, then his eyes bored curious and deep into the woman’s. “This is no payment for me but the thing itself,” he said. “And I ask no payment for this work.” “If there is work to be done you had better be doing it,” she whispered, reluctantly giving her pearl to him. And taking it, he placed it on the largest anvil and with one blow he crushed it.
The woman cried out in fear at the sound, closing her eyes. When she opened them, she was astonished to see the smith held out to her a sword of steel with pearl shine and inlay. “You carried this the whole time, and never knew it,” he told her. “It’s a rare gift, and a rare one who carries such a thing. Now go you back to your bird. And know, you are welcome here any time.” And saying that, he turned his back and went to the bellows to urge the fire hotter.
The woman, marveling, went back to the stream bed. And indeed, from then the work was easy. Within a day she had wrestled the overgrowth and the dead wood away from the spring’s source, and freed the water to flow again. The little bird trilled happily to see it. “You have repaid my favor amply, thank you kind woman. Your way lies past the spring’s source, up the hill. Come back to see me any time.” And happily chirruping to herself, the little bird began constructing a new nest out of bits of saved string and twigs and other little sundry items.
The woman went on her way, tying her sword around her waist, happy to have it. And indeed, it was just as the bird said, her path did lie up on the hill over the spring, as clear as ever. With great relief, she began walking in a direction she knew would take her home. The afternoon was warm and clear, butterflies and bees hummed and fluttered in the grass and flowers, and she enjoyed herself in the fresh breeze, knowing she was headed home at last.
To her surprise, as night came on, she saw that the path led into a dark opening in a hillside. “What is this,” she thought. But clearly, there was nothing for it but to enter, for the path was broad and well-cleared. “Well, if I must enter the hill, I’d better be doing it,” she said to herself. Just to be safe, the woman pulled out her sword, and, a little fearfully, entered into the hill.
She was surprised to find herself in a long passageway that seemed to go through the hill entirely. Torches lined either side, so the whole thing was lit up with the warmth of the flames, and shadows danced. Lining either side of the hall were all manner of thing—chests of treasure, dusty with time, dim pictures and forgotten oddments so old and strange it was impossible to know their value. And all along the walls were all manner of masks. In the light of the torches, the features of the masks moved, growing larger and smaller, brighter and darker. “What place is this,” the woman breathed to herself. Curiosity and awe filled her.
This is the hall of the ancestors, said a chorus of voices in her head. There was no sound to be heard with the ears except the quiet padding of her footsteps, the occasional clink as her sword knocked against something accidentally. You will find this hall open to you, should you want to return. Until then, you may take one torch to light your way, for when you emerge it will be night once more.
“Well, this will certainly be an easier passage than those thorny woods I started out in,” thought the woman to herself. “And… I might come back to see my friend the bird again.” So she curtsied to the spirits of the place and said, “I thank you, good folk. One torch will I take. And when I come back I will bring you a gift as well.” And, putting her sword back in her belt, she lifted the torch closest to her and made her way forward.
Soon enough, she emerged out into the world once more and found herself in her own back yard and garden. Her family welcomed her into the house with open arms, curious and delighted to hear her story. “But mother, we are confused,” said her daughter, after she finished. “You say you have a sword, and a torch, but where are they?” And sure enough, astonished, the woman saw that the hand that had carried the torch held it no longer, and instead there gleamed a ring on her finger, fiery in the night. And as for her sword, it had melted into a pearl handled pen in her pocket. Laughing, she pulled it out to show her children, and promptly wrote down this story.
And now, a good night to you all. My story is done.
Have you read Ursula Le Guin’s classic short story, The ones who walk away from Omelas?
If you haven’t, go and read it now. This can wait.
Omelas is a privileged city, almost a utopia, apart from the one thing that enables its citizens to lead full, happy, and carefree lives – and that one thing is what makes many people walk away from Omelas.
Would you walk away from Omelas? Or would you consider that the bargain is justified?
The thing is, in a way, we all live in Omelas. If you live in the West and use products made by underpaid workers, or even slaves, in the Far East, shipped across the ocean at a high cost to marine wildlife, then you live in Omelas.
But our society is not Omelas for everyone. Some people cannot even walk down the street without fearing for their lives. Some people get arrested or even killed for the colour of their skin, the way they walk, the way they dress. If you are Black, or transgender, or gay, you are especially in danger.
Walking down the street without fear of harassment, arrest, or assault is not a privilege, it is a right. Those of us who pass for cisgender and/or straight and/or white take this right for granted, and are often unaware that it is a right that is denied to many of our fellow-citizens.
Education is not a privilege, it is a right (at least until the age of 16).
If you are right-handed, you take it for granted that the world fits you like a glove. You are unaware of the structural disadvantage faced by left-handers, and call us “awkward” and “cack-handed”. (I use left-handedness as an example because whilst the structural disadvantages are fairly minor, it seems they are invisible to everyone except left-handers.)
A privilege is defined as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group”. A right is defined as “a moral or legal entitlement to have or do something”. By definition, rights are, or should be, available to everyone, whereas privileges are, or should be, only granted under exceptional circumstances.
Walking down the street without fear of harassment, arrest, assault, or being murdered by police, is something to which every citizen has a moral and legal entitlement. Being afraid every time your son or brother or father leaves the house, that he will get killed just for being Black – that should be a right, not a privilege.
There are many privileges granted to people in the West that ought to be rights for everyone in the world – access to healthcare, not being in danger of famine, epidemics, enslavement, maiming or death by bombing, displacement by war and persecution, and other horrors. The relative peace and security and wealth of the West is built on the deprivation of the rest of the world – our cheap goods result from the economic disparity between East and West, and the fact that people in Bangladesh, China and other places, are prepared to work for very low wages.
Our Omelas is very big and very pervasive – and we seem to be trapped in it.
Perhaps it is not enough to walk away from Omelas – we need to dismantle it from within.