Connected to the bog-land by a wooden causeway, the crannog roundhouse was ringed by rough, stout poles. Wisps of smoke rose from its chimney, as it sat, squat and secure, built atop four crude juts of white stone, jutting onto the black bog-lake like a wheel cross. Beyond the bog-land, ash, beech, willow and cottonwood skirted a rill sparkling down from the greenmen. To the north, foothills of the greenmen rose, each taller than the last, stone giants heaving themselves up out of the earth, rounded shoulders trimmed in a wavering line of mist.
A cuneiform of wedged hoof prints recorded the passage of the flock upstream to the mouth of a narrow vale. Beneath a braided waterfall, podgy sheep nibbled intently at damp rock herbage while a lanky girl, wavy haired tied back with a bit of sinew, waded under the mist-spray. In the deep topaz pool, roiling with tiny whirlpools from the force of the waterfall, the quicksilver bolts of highland metal trout flashed gold and silver. Spiraling above, with an eye to those unwilling fish, a solo hawk spied the horse coming through the forest, half a mile southeast of the traveled road. It was negotiating its way through the trees, a black thing obscured by green needles, its head slightly lowered, encumbered by a woman slumped over its back.
A foot path and bridge cut through marsh, woods, and stream, from the crannog to the field where the boy was pausing, gazing up, preparing to unhitch the ox. A commotion of sparrows, thrushes, and crows dotted the oil-black furlong. Wren heard the hawk’s scree and offered the gesture of the open hand, as it sheared off east, to open ocean. Coaxing Horn, he led him across rows of rich, friable upheaval. At a green-tipped cottonwood, he tethered the ox, patting his wooly curls. The boy had been taught respect for power, especially the power he was given to hold over other living things. Power changed shape in one’s hands, twisted to its own ends.
There was mother’s power and father’s power. Weakness that was power and power that was weakness. Power that heals; power that strikes. For Wren, this two-in-oneness was a fact of birth. Both his parents were Orroch, but his mother had been in the Spiral, where Suleviaen ladies taught that all phenomena were empty and interdependent, even the gods. His father held the old belief in immortals, like Essger and Asherah, whose bright forms dwelled in supernal realms while their dim forms walked the world disguised. One thing both his parents agreed on: even as the gods knew endless bliss, men too knew inner peace – nothing was hidden from the human heart. For his father, reality might be an absolute truth. For his mother, reality might be free of all absolutes. But the door to their home was inscribed with a proverb common to both faiths: Never to search, ever to find.
“Tsk!” she scolded the shaggy young hounds jogging up and down along the river bank, frightening the sheep. What was it? Wolves? A bear? Between them, the sheep and dogs may as well have been waving a blood-soaked flag - the former charging back and forth along the bank in disordered sallies, the latter nipping at their flanks.
“Sridean! Taibreamh!” Ears flattened, they ran to the bank and waded in, their keen senses instantly distracted by the mud stirred by their paws and by the sudden upstream dart of intermittent salmon. Taib crouched low, as if to lunge, but lifted his ears and turned back toward the crannog, whining. What was it? Srid let out a queer yelp. Both splashed at the water, leaping up and down, tongues lolling.
Guided by a mistress somewhat resentful of her disrupted morning’s fishing, they went trampling, an ungainly troupe, down the stone-pocked glen into the fir trees. After a jog of some minutes, their hooves clattered and drummed over the bridge. But the dogs hesitated and turned away from the bridge, toward the fields. “Oh,” she groaned “It’s Wren.”
At the edge of the furlong, she drove the flock into a decrepit holding pen, then followed the dogs along the outskirts of the new ploughed furrows and down across a rivulet that separated second field from third. In a natural windbreak along the upper bank, Horn was tethered, shaggy and looming. Boinn crept up the bank to Horn’s side, and peered through the trees, intending to catch Wren unawares. He was kneeling beside a sable horse, too elegant for these parts, with too finely wrought a saddle. Tai and Srid whined, but Boinn quieted them with a threatening gesture. Wren was tending to a woman on ground. He had turned her over and brushed soil from her pale face, but clodded soil mingled in her long black hair. Under a low-cut leather tunic, her dirt-smudged breasts rose and fell.
“She fell,” Wren said, not even turning round to show he knew Boinn was there. “The horse came out of the woods.”
The ropes that had lashed the woman to the horse had been undone. Wren must have untied her. He must have tried to get her down. It looked like he had dropped her face-first in the dirt.
“What were you trying to do?” she asked. His eyes were like mother’s, only timid, diffident. When he looked down at the ground that way, it was hard to make out his words. Boinn inspected the woman, the expression of her closed eyes. She was far away, possibly beyond help.
“Help me get her back across the horse.”
She was remembering her village, Yssera, the thatched cottages, the slate gray clouds, the cry of gulls and smell of rain and salt. It hurt. Words - home, childhood, nostalgia - might have come up to explain the hurt, but the truth was more elemental. What hurt was the mere fact of the surf pounding on the sand. Each time a wave struck the sand, one cascade of indeterminacies passed across and through another. The hurt was uniqueness happening.
They were poor, in the north, near the sea. Once, she had seen a monster eel washed upon the rocks, curled along the shoreline for a hundred yards, its granite gray, mottled body heaving and falling with the somber swell of the waves. Its dread eye had filmed over, and its long, white, fleshy whiskers moved about, limp, in the ebb and flow of tide.
Its image came back to her, its eel flesh, its blind eye – this beaching of a sea serpent, a once animate wave that could not be separated from its wavelength. It flashed upon her mind, resurfaced out of memory, forced, weak and worn out, to wash up on the surface again. That creature, drowned in air, was herself. It had taken twenty years for time to show her that.
In the Telesterion, we made the vow. You told us, Tel, see the identity waves as identity waves. Forgive me, Tel. You said: transgress. I transgress. I return myself to the world, and the world to me.
She was a dark ray passed back into the spectrum of light. It hurt to be one and many. It hurt to live. A woman was singing over her, a highlander. In the periphery hovered a quick, nervous face. A boy with hazel eyes like the mother’s. The slow melody moved into words:
In darkness, whole.
In wholeness, dark.
She was lulled asleep, for a few heartbeats or a few hours. The boy – no, a girl now, with deft hands and serious eyes – held a pungent infusion to her lips. Thick-tongued, she drank, as the girl stirred musky smudge in the air. She turned onto her side, a dull pounding in her head.
She woke in the night on a firm bed fragrant of sweetgrass. The quiet house spoke of cleanliness, of early rising and honest sleep, of life obedient to the cycle of day and dark. Her bed was across from the hearth. Embers gleamed red in an intricate slate chimney. Instead of a second floor, the builder had made shallow lofts and left the ceiling high, the space open.
But her mind was not ready to cling to details. It hurt, in a physical way, to be impinged upon by the world. As things impinged, so did selfhood - too much, too soon. When she closed her eyes, her mind swam, her soul fractured; the only relief was to succumb to the oblivion, the rhythmic waves. In darkness, whole. In wholeness, dark.
It was daylight, and the girl brought her bitter tea and plain curd. She forced her eyes to focus, meet hers.
“Are you well enough to talk to us?” she asked, the highlands in her accent.
The effort to vocalize brought too much time-compression. Streams of particles attracted to streams of particles. She felt nauseous.
No, highland girl. I’m not well enough. There’s too much darkness in me.
The mother came, touched a hand to her forehead.
“You’re past the worst.” Her her hair tightly braided - not wild like the night before. “Boinn,” she nodded. “I’ll tend our guest.”
As the daughter left the room, some of the tension left the mother’s body.
She knows words for us. Anathema. Abomination. I must speak to her. I must try to speak.
“Rest,” the woman said. “Don’t struggle.”
Yes, sleep! But I must speak to her while there is still time.
The woman stroked her head. “There, there. Lie back.”
Words are so hard to form. Words bring the nausea, the rainbow sickness.
“Close your eyes and sleep.”
Does she understand? Was she a sister?
The woman leaned in. “Please, don’t.” She spoke in a tense hush. “Don’t let them hear.”
“Take her horse. Get your father.”
“Father?” She was confused. “It’s two weeks...”
Mother shook her head. “Two days. He’s only in Dalach.”
Boinn made a face. “Why would he be in Dalach?”
“Because he’s a liar, and he does what Dadga tells him.”
Father was supposed to be at the border. If he was that near, he would check on them. He’d guess how far they’d fallen behind in the planting. He’d sense things were wrong. Somehow he’d know a stranger had come, a morrigan, one of the abominations who try to return to human form. It had not been like that for mother. She’d never made the vow. Mother was an Orai and had entered the Spiral, not the Telesterion. Maybe mother thought she didn’t know. The east arm of the Spiral, the Orai, was closed, because a morrigan had come and murdered them.
“Are you listening to me, Bo?” Mother fixed a hand on her shoulder. “I cannot help this woman. We need your father here, and we need him now.”
They were on the causeway in the moonlight, away from the house. Mist curled slowly on the bog as frogs croaked the night-rhythm that hummed from the earth. It was crazy, mother asking her to ride the dark lady’s horse to Dalach.
“And what can father do?” Boinn seethed.
It was mother who had power. Why else did they live off in the crannog? She had power she did not want to use. She was hiding beneath a bushel, one of a handful of surviving Orai. She didn’t want to teach; she didn’t want to share. Boinn believed her mother was a coward. She believed she was selfish. But she refused to believe she was helpless.
Mother had turned away to the pitted reflection of the wan moon on the dark water. Her shoulders were slack. “He can save her the suffering.”
“So can I,” Boinn said, quietly.
She heard the catch in her mother’s breath. The chorale of tiny green marsh frogs was loud around them, and the backdrop of silence louder - that presence of the planet, vast, indifferent, and patient. Each being was free to make its own choices, good or bad.
“No.” A lifetime of regret showed in her eyes. “A woman must never harm a woman.”
He had to go outside. Not too far. Twice each moon, Lorca chanted propitiations to the lhug. She poured goldroot water and golden grain into the marsh-pond, so their home remained in balance with the unseen nature intelligences. But tonight, out on the crannog, wraith fire bubbled ghostly from the marsh, as if lugh were gathering. People said the lhug could crowd into your lungs, into your dreams, cloud your mind, make you melancholy. The Gu, who had lived for thousands of years up in the greenmen, could see when your wind body was losing the human form. People said Aurum scholars could also see. The bonds of human love were supposed to be the best protection. But Rufus was gone and Wren had brought the flickering woman home. Wren said nothing to Boinn or Lorca, but he saw the flickering.
He’d just go out, beyond the eerie marsh-exhalations, into the dry woods. Just a bit away, to the woods, then to the bridge at the edge of the fields; higher ground, where stars gleamed cleanly in the open canopy and curmudgeonly owls shifted between habitual perches. He often went to the bridge to watch the current flow, like spun wool twined with moonlight.
When the moon was full it pressured him most, the force that sizzled through the world, at the humming edge of silence and sheer life. Lying in his loft, wakeful, alert, he would watch the half meter of space between the thatching and his face fill with infinitesimals, too tiny to be called motes, as they danced in instantaneous patterns. Instantaneous creation and instantaneous destruction.
With it, there came a feeling in his head, a gentleness, a blissful pressure, a crystalline sound – in body and heart - a stillness, a silence, a song, a lore that filled all of space. Though, usually he noticed it in the loft, if he went outside, it was there: pristine, primordial, driving, blissful. Subtle books of the Suleviae spoke of it through indirection as ‘the sweetness’ or the ‘patternless pattern’. Once, on a night when it came flowing into his room, he went out to commune with it, beyond sorrow and wonder. When he went back inside, Lorca was sitting in her chair near the hearth, silhouetted in a soft yellow aureole.
Tonight, the moon was dark. Boinn had gone, on the dark horse, without speaking to him. Lorca had shut herself in the guest room. Once, when the door cracked open, he had seen how the flickering spread through the stranger’s body. Soon, very soon, it would consume her. He stood on the bridge, watching the water flow, cold, swift, heedless. When he turned to look at the fields, three inky specters were gliding across the furrows, their feet barely disturbing the soil. He knew to run, but a futility held him. As they approached, their nude bodies were velvet dark. No hair, no eyes, no ears, no nose, no mouth. Only beguiling, electric forms. He felt shameless, staring at the dark wraiths, yet could not look away. Something in their bodies asked, what is it you fear?
On the bridge, the middle lady floated forward and caressed his cheek. The other two rippled at her sides. A face emerged from the plasma of her form – opalescent, liquid, with bright points of light at the center of obsidian pupils. She materialized for him alone, each detail of her, the mottles startled onto her flesh by the cold night air, the pore of her soft skin. With parted lips, she leaned to his mouth and found his tongue, so that he shuddered, his penis suddenly hard as a polished fetish, his mind unmoored as if by potent liquor.
“Little boy. No man may behold the morrigan and live.” Long fingers played on his throat. “But a man would push himself up against my hips.” She cradled the back of his head in her palm and brushed his lips with hers.
His breath came in shivers, her moss scent in his nostrils, the strange fruit of her breasts against his ribs. If she knew how the blood swam in his mind, would she call him a boy? He tried to look away, but, to either side of her, the lady wraiths quivered, dark triptychs where endless pairs of lovers joined in every union, squirming in the single viscous, gelatinous pulse of life and death and endless interpenetration.
“I would succumb, and you would enter me, with the spasm of your flesh, and pump your seed into the gyre of my womb.”
There was a hush of wind, a moment of oblivion. The dark ladies must have flowed past him, over the bridge, into the night. But his mind could not think beyond the nonhuman presence of the forest welling all around him so forcefully he was not there: the porous old wood, the sponge, pulp and pith of assimilative trees, moss, fungi, microbial soil. Existence welled. There was only the crenellated bark of fir, spruce, and arborvitae, the rust and copper of needles on the dank forest floor, the distant, mindless, mechanical chorale of marsh frogs.
For a spell of unknown duration, there was awareness but no person. It was not so terrible, non-existence. But, he found, indifferently, that he still had volition. Drunk, drugged, off-balance, he made his way to the bridge’s other end, scrambled down the bank to the pebble wash, and plunged his head in the bracing current – once, twice, three times.
He told himself he felt a bit more solid. But, kneeling by the chattering stream, he felt lightheaded, permeable, as though star-filled space were no longer held by some decree outside the world’s bounds. He was too borderless to risk trying for home. Above the stream’s chatter buzzed a deep silence from an incorruptible source.
He knelt. The stream was an oracle pool, a vein of pure life, where the earth spoke. A luminous ground began to arise, like a full moon, strange in its totality. Something in his being feared it, squirmed to find shelter, a hiding place, but it arose nonetheless, inexorable. The stones beneath the ribbon of current were aglow, the trunks of trees, the lineaments of his body. Complex geometric patterns, invisible to him before, filled the space between each blade of grass.
He made the mistake of looking at the bridge. An animal sound forced itself from his core. Fear prickled round him; fear of the presence of death. He was in death’s presence. There, on the bridge, his body was still kneeling, on the splintery cedar planks where he had been kneeling when the lady kissed him.
He understood what he was: a mental body held together by ghost traces. Something impelled him, made him step forward. He set foot on the water. He was lighter than water. The current passed beneath his feet, cool, not wet. Branches of a cedar loomed over him, limbs draped in soft, fanning needless, welling with the unknown. The earth supported him as the sea supports a lone swimmer on swells of a noumenon that could at any moment subsume him.
It was queer, seeing his body: a thing he had identified with, called himself. Death was the end of identification. Death had no habits. He thought they had gone, but the dark ladies were there beside him, where he stood on the water. They gathered, armless, handless, holding him.