Seven years and a few months ago, I dreamt of giving up what was a powerful and personal symbol. The bow, sometimes as elaborate and decorated as a role playing game’s prop, sometimes as simple and unremarkable as a wood and string can get, was a weapon my dream self best used against my fears.
And sometimes, against me.
My concern that I was giving up more than a symbol was a valid one, though the beginning of that understanding would take five years to assemble itself. I did not understand why I placed it on that altar at that time. I understand now that the bow was somehow linked with my experiences as a Christian. I had been hurt enough by the devoted followers of a god that rejected me. So I rejected him and the promises that would never, could never, be fulfilled.
It’s not like an apostate could ever keep her end of the bargain, after all.
Last night I walked through the inner sanctum of a marble-hewn temple. Doric columns stood silent sentinel as they held away weights I could not see but felt on my heart. My shoes made no sound on the floor allowing my white clothing to swish softly in rhythm to my determination.
Behind me, the angel [Wit]1 tracks immediately behind me. Their armor makes no noise either against the floor or itself as they follow me. I am too focused on my destination to reflect on their presence or to consider if they were present the first time and I was unaware of it.
The solid marble block waits for me. The block is wider than I am tall and sits so its length is left to right. A reinforced longbow rests on utilitarian stands atop the block. Under it is a thin white cloth trimmed in gold that drapes across the width of the block. Behind the bow are two gold candlesticks holding two white candles. The candles are lit but I realize that the very stone of the edifice is glowing.
The mirror behind the block reflects most of what is in front of it, but the colors are again altered. The marble block’s reflection is polished obsidian. The gold and white candles are silver and black. The white and gold cloth is black and silver as well. My body is “normal”, but both eyes in the reflection are as onyx. The mirror reflects my clothes as black.
Instead of showing a reflection of the angel, the mirror shows a great darkness blocking the view of everything behind me. I turn my head slightly to silently ask [Wit] if there is something of import here.
The angel does not answer with words, but reaches up to pull the hooded robe away from the nape of my neck. The cloth is moved enough so that the upper portion of my back is also exposed. They place their right gauntlet hand over the exposed area. I feel something pressed into my flesh.
No sound is made in the sanctum, but I feel the angel’s voice. «As you have kept faith, so shall the promises be kept.» I do not understand how the bow is part of the “promises” or what it represents beyond the skills needed to wield it effectively. I do understand that now is the time to take the bow back.
I reach up with my left hand to take the bow. My reflection does the same. The movement in the mirror distracts me and I stare at the dulling black eyes of my reflection.
I am suddenly very afraid.
The angel presses their hand to the peak of my spine. At their touch, I identify what was pressed into my skin as their seal ignites. In my depths, the flame that never left reasserts itself. I open my mouth to speak against the reflection. A jet of blue flame exits my mouth to assault the mirror.
My reflection releases her hand on the reflection of the bow. She raises both hands in a futile attempt to deflect the flame. As the flame consumes the mirror and dissolves it, I reach with my hand and take hold of the physical bow.
“I’m taking it back. I’m taking it all back. I will not live in pieces anymore. I am what I am, and I will be nothing less.”
I do not look up to see what was beyond the mirror, or even if anything was beyond the mirror. The angel lifts their hand from me. The inner flame subsides. I grip the bow with my left hand and accept all that it represents regardless if I am aware of it or not.
The bow dissolves and the resulting motes settle into my form. I close my eyes, nod, and will to leave the temple.
“Hello!” Her voice is bright and warm like sunshine after a rain. Just to hear it makes me happy and fills me with hope for all the things I have lost hope about. “Have you considered my offer?”
This time the “cosplaying angel” appears as a cloud of bright and sparkling multi-colored lights that filled the upper third of the room I found myself in. It was hard not to laugh and take delight as a child would have. I found myself filled with a desire to put aside all the worries I carried and just play.
The offer she refers to is in regard to a request that will not be detailed for the public eye. It is enough to say that she has offered to be of assistance to me for spiritual and mundane matters and has proven herself capable of both already. However, even accepting that offer at face value means exposing myself to even more angelic business than I am currently comfortable with.
“I’ve thought about it, [Joy]. And I’mma ask you the same thing I ask all entities that approach me. Why? Surely there are other mortals more worthy of your stature and [intelligence]. Why me? Why [in this way]?”
“Why not!” The cloud of lights laughed and I could not help but laugh with her. They orbited my head and shoulders, flashing as they went, and I felt comforted in a way I have not felt since childhood. “Why [in this way]? Because it is a boundary you are agreeable to and I accept. Why you? Again, why not! But if you must have a reason, it is because you are loved.”
There are those words again. Words I do not trust from any being, corporeal or not. She laughed but I failed to laugh with her.
The cloud of lights withdrew from me and assembled into a hologram of a floating woman draped in diaphanous cloth. The figure was nearly complete except her head remained a diffuse and rolling cloud of multi-color lights. I blinked and in the split-second of darkness saw that each light was actually the sparkle of an eye that was focused on me. I shook my head to clear the vision. This was not the time for bending dimensions.
“I know what you have endured, both from my brethren and from those who have ceased to be my brethren. If I could make that pain go away, I would have done so at our first encounter. I know you do not trust me, and even if [my lord], [my lord’s lord], or [my Lord] were to declare my intentions to you, that you would still disbelieve. But I speak true and [Truth]. You are loved, and because of that, I am here to help you.”
I noted she did not try to fall back on our previous (unpublished) encounters and the times her assistance has helped me with tasks that I thought unsurmountable. I found that refreshing.
“Okay. I gotta move on sometime, right? And you have been true to your [words], and I’m not without recourse if this goes south.” Without thinking, I stuck my hand out for a handshake as a gesture of commitment. “I accept your help, [Joy].”
In the split-second that I realized what I was doing, the angel had burst forward to grasp my hand with hers. “Oh! A handshake! These are fun! Did you know you can tell if the other person intends to keep their word through the contact of the grip?” I was amazed, terrified, astounded, and full of stupefying happiness all at the same time.
Her holographic body was just as firm and substantial as my dream body. What she said settled into my consciousness and I looked at our conjoined grip. I could feel her intent and power through the touch, and felt that she was truly committed to helping me, but that she also was committed to remaining independent of me, as she should.
I could also feel her examining my intent and hoped that I would be found honest and true. The moment I felt my concern, she laughed again and the joy inspired by her laughter chased the worry away. “We’ll get through this. You’ll get through this. One day at a time. One page at a time. One mark at a time.”
As she spoke some of the lights floated down to my arm. She turned my right arm so that the inner skin of the forearm was facing up. Her lights burst over the skin and traced [some markings] on my arm. She laughed/shouted a burst of sound/joy and the markings became indelible black lines not unlike a tattoo.
“Later, I will show these to you clearly so that you may record them where you will. But for now, see, I have signed my name upon you so that all who see may know that you are not without assistance. Call upon me, and I shall come to you.”
She released my hand but continued to float above me. “Oh, this will be wonderful! I have such joy to know [things]! I am well aware of [Wit] and their relationship with you. I do not seek to insert myself into that. They have their place and I have mine. But I also know of [what you are taking back] and I have so much joy that I get to watch that happen!”
[Joy’s] joy is infectious, and for all my concerns and worries, I can’t help but smile and laugh with her now. I look back at my right arm. I know what I have to do to bring those markings into the physical world. I resolve to complete those actions as soon as possible.
“Yes!” Her shout cuts through my introspection. “Yes, I will meet you there!” She dissolves into innumerable multicolored motes of light. There is one more shout of laughter and the dream dissolves as well.
“Much has changed since I was here.” The man’s voice stirs me from the sleep I was not aware I was having. I open my eyes to find myself in a church that doesn’t exist but I have been in before.
He is walking down the central aisle, traveling from the direction of the sanctuary. As I was seated in a middle pew, he was still facing me when he spoke.
“The buildings have changed. The clothes have changed. Some of what is accepted now is downright horrible, but some of what was horrible is no longer accepted so it all balances out.”
The man is dressed in something like a cassock, but it wasn’t any type of modern dress. He touches each pew as he passes but stops one pew in front of me. He leans on the pew there and inspects me with obvious derision.
He points to the bundle of cloth in my lap. “Are you going to just keep your hands warm, or are you actually going to use it?”
I look at the cloth rolled up on my lap. Without unrolling it, I know it to be the overcoat. I looked up at him. His sun-bronzed skin reminded me of someone but I was unable to identify who. “I’m going to use it. Eventually. It takes more than just having it to use it, you know. There’s a protocol to follow. You can’t just walk around saying you’re someone special and expect whole congregations to fall at your feet with money and honors.”
“Well, at least you got that right.” His tone of voice led me to believe that if we were any place else but in a church, he would have spat on the ground twice by now and probably once in my face. “Who is going to teach you? Who is going to lay hands on you? Who is going to make sure you know and follow the traditions? Who is going to believe you, Apostate?”
He pointed at me with harsh gestures. “Oathbreaker! You had everything and you threw it down like a broken toy! You would have been exalted and given a place of honor, but instead of bearing the light burden requested, you defiled what little you had and pissed into the wind!”
I was tempted to throw the overcoat on the pew and start throwing hands, but I reminded myself I was in a church and thus subject to the hospitality of the host. So I remained seated and kept my voice low.
“First of all… I may be an apostate, but I broke no oath. I had oaths broken on my back. Tell me which church body did I harm by leaving, by doing the very thing they wanted me to do. Tell me who did I take money from and whose mouth went without bread because of me. You say I had everything? You infer that I had a high seat, a place of honor, a title of respect? Dude. You need to lay off whatever the hell you’re smoking because all that wishful thinking is blinding you.”
“Second of all… You’re talking like I’m going to go back to whatever is passing for Christianity now. I don’t know where you’re from or even when you’re from, but lemme introduce you to the year of our lord, two thousand, fucking eighteen as lived under the oversight of the most entitled culture on this planet. What is taught from the pulpit is not what is translated in the books is not what was written is not what was experienced. And what I just said is one of the most blasphemous things a person, Christian or not, could ever say about the predominant religion in this country and that outta tell you all you need to know about how well received I would have been even if I had toed the line as instructed.”
“And thirdly… this overcoat is mine. Considering the circumstances by which it originally came to me2 I’m not claiming to have the only expression of this overcoat in the world. After all, the physical overcoat no longer exists! But even if I never get a physical representation of this, I will not give up what this represents. Yea, I’ll have to learn a new way of doing things, and I won’t be surprised if I wind up helping out a Christian here or there. But you can keep your honors and your accolades and your recognition. I’ve seen enough in this world to know what I have to do to receive them. I’d rather sleep with a clear conscious, please and thank you.”
As I rebuked him, he moved out of the aisle to kneel backwards on the pew so he could continue to face me. He wasn’t offended by my answer. If anything, my pushback seemed to excite and thrill him. Concerned I was allowing my temper to lead me into a trap, I tried to turn the questioning around.
“You do ask a good question. Who is going to teach me? If the overcoat represents the skill, who is going to see that it fits me? Is that why you’re here? Almost all of the lineages have been broken and restarted multiple times since the rock foundation of this building was laid. Which lineage are you proposing I seek entrance to, if you are proposing a lineage at all?”
He leaned over the pew. I saw the whites of his eyes and realized I was likely not talking to a living person, assuming I was talking to a person at all. He grinned and all doubts about his humanity were settled.
“Do you think I care?” He chuckled. “Do you think I care about what other people are pretending to be? Do you think I care about what those who have given themselves to this world are up to? Because I don’t.”
He pointed to the overcoat that I didn’t realize I was gripping as if to keep it from being snatched away from me. “I care about that, and I care about what you should have been but didn’t become, and I care about the pure, the true, and the holy. Which I don’t think you are, nor do I think you ever being capable of again.”
Somehow he leaned over the pew enough so that he was leaning directly over me. He rested his hands (his brightly bronze hands) on the overcoat but made no attempt to take it from me. “If it were permitted to me, I would take this back and throw you out! But it is not permitted to me, and I already see that you will not give it up if I were to ask, even if I were to ask… nicely.”
He lifted his hands from the overcoat but remained leaning over the pew by his will and spite alone. “So. Since it is not permitted to me to receive, I shall give. You want it? Then take what comes with it. Take all of it!”
He moves quicker than I can blink and lays his hand on my forehead. Fire bursts from the palm of his hand and flows over my head like burning oil.
I do not burn. Instead, memories of visions and experiences I thought I had forgotten return to my consciousness. New understandings of old words unraveled mysteries that I thought had been denied me.
I do not cry out. I silently weep as I understand what I should have been if my circumstances were perfect but never had a chance in hell of becoming in the circumstances that bracketed my life after all. I accept that I am as I am now and that whatever becomes of me is what I will become.
The bronze man’s hand never left my head. Somehow I knew that he knew what I was enduring as a result of his touch. My response was not what he expected and this only enraged him further.
He raises his face towards heaven, ignoring the sanctuary behind him. He raises his other hand and prays in a language I did not recognize or understand. His raised hand inflames with a brilliant white flame.
He lowers his face towards me again. “So. You think you can deal? You may have made peace with your past, but are you prepared to repeat it in your future, Apostate? You walked away! You gave it up! You have no right to it or what it carries! I will enjoy watching you burn!”
He lowers his inflamed hand onto my head and the white flame flows over me. The fire burns away the illusion of flesh instantly. Without a head to press on, his hands pass through my spirit without harm to him or me.
The white flame has ignited the brilliant blue flame in my spirit. Together, the flames entwine and expand, creating a new body for me in the blink of an eye. The new body grants me the ability to speak again, and for some time I sit in the pew completely overcome by the divine flame, speaking various praises for the god that I had left but hadn’t left me.
The bronze man was not pleased by the result of his assault. Not pleased even one tiny bit.
The spirit body may have regained the ability to speak, but I was completely blind. So I do not know who approached the bronze man from the direction of the sanctuary and told him that this was enough and that regardless of his personal views of the matter, the fact was that the overcoat was mine, I had accepted it back into my life, and I had also clearly accepted the consequences of accepting it back into my life.
The throes of ecstasy ended with a touch on the side of my face. The flame extinguished and my “normal” dream body asserted itself. The metal that softly pressed my cheek was malleable as it curved against my face. Suddenly exhausted, I looked at the hand with my restored vision.
I watched a black metal gauntlet moving to rest on my shoulder.
I leaned my head back. [Wit’s] closed visor leaned over me.
“Hi.” My voice was a whisper as my vocal cords were strained and sore.
The angel only nodded.
“Is it time to go?”
They nodded again.
“Okay. I’m actually glad to see you. I’ve had a helluva day.”
They did not respond, which is good. I don’t think I had the ability to remain polite if they hadn’t.
I picked myself up off the pew and shook out the crumpled overcoat. “I guess I’m going to be wearing this more often in the Waking. Might as well start getting used to it again now.” I tried to put the overcoat on, but my tired body was not cooperating. “Hey, would ya help me out here?”
[Wit] moved to assist me with putting on the overcoat. “Yea, there’s no way I’m going to find anything this comfortable or this fitting in the Waking. Not on my budget.”
As I start to exit the pew, I realize I am beginning to take on the presentation of my Bow-Wielder aspect. I look at the angel again. The angel looks silently back at me.
“The hat. I’m missing the hat. But I don’t know what the hat represents. I have the rosary, [the book], you, and the overcoat. But I have no bloody idea what’s with the hat beyond hashtag aesthetic. I’m going to find out the hard way, aren’t I?”
The angel nodded once, slowly.
“Ugh. Fine. I guess. Let me get out of here before anyone else shows up with a grudge greater than mine.”
The angel walked with me to the doors at the main entrance. As the heavy door swung open, I heard someone speaking from the sanctuary.
“See. She’s adapting. It’s what humans do. They’re pretty good at it if you let them adapt at their pace.”
I decided that today would not be the day that I die and refrained from challenging the speaker. I left the church, and in doing so, left all dreaming behind and woke up.
1: A reminder that names in [brackets] are public pseudonyms that the named entity has allowed for public use.
2: I have never forgotten how the overcoat came to me, but it will not be posted publicly.