I’ll talk about myself until the sun sets, rises, and sets again. But when talking of someone else, I am hesitant. Even more so when death is involved. I have wondered if I should put this post behind the password wall. Or even if I should post it publicly at all. The identity of the other person has been scrubbed. But I can’t leave him out of my words entirely. His death has had a direct impact on the person I have emerged to be today.
About nine years ago, I held the hand of a man as he died. A domestic dispute had spiraled out of control, and he was stabbed at least 28 times. He crashed into my neighbor’s yard as he tried to get help. At the sound of the crash I was calling 911, and I know many of my neighbors did the same. But he died before the medics arrived, holding my hand.
I couldn’t go to work that night. I called my boss and let him know what had happened. He understood and gave me a pass. For a couple of weeks, it bothered me. The sight of his jersey turning from brilliant white to crimson red was always nearby. But over time, it faded, and I went on with the roller-coaster that my life had in store for me. (Yes, that was my post on Reddit. No, I won’t link to it.)
Then I dreamed of Ravenwoman. And I started seeing the jersey again. It would flash in my sleep, jerking me awake. Out of the corner of my eye, I would see it laying on the bed, blood dripping off of it. I turn to look squarely at the spot, and all would be normal. I had unresolved issues with that night, it would seem.
Yea, I suppose I could have gone to see a mental health professional. But, my experiences with them has left such a bitter aftertaste, I’d rather go completely mad than deal with the system again. Besides, I’d have to fess up all my other dreams. Madness, madness all!
As the days progressed, the jersey became more prominent. I knew it was a projection, so no matter where I spotted it, I didn’t react in shock or horror. Like a reminder to trim the hedges, it just continued existing at the edges of my periphery.
This past Friday morning, I found myself in the svartalf’s chambers. In the thurse form I had been gifted with when I first started puttering around the Nine Worlds. I saw I still had Ravenwoman’s netting on my right hand, but instead of the fur trimmed cloak that came with the appearance, I found I was wearing Ravenwoman’s feathered cloak. I asked the svartalf about the change. He was not happy to see the cloak and attempted to remove it. The feathers singed his fingers so he drew his hand away. “You’re being called, Softskin. But I don’t think you are ready for this. Don’t go. Not yet.” I tried to shrug off the feather cloak, but it was stuck fast to me. I looked down, then back up at him, and saw the dead man’s bloodied jersey on the table behind the svartalf.
The svartalf followed my gaze and tried to snatch up the jersey but it turned to dust at his touch and dissolved away into the air. He turned back to me, looking very dour on the feather cloak. “If you leave here, you’ll go to her. She’s calling you. You’re not ready. Go home.” I woke up in my bed, in a cold sweat despite the chilly temperature.
Friday night, I barely slept. When I closed my eyes, I would either see the bloodied jersey, or feel the feathers of Ravenwoman’s cloak. I found myself barely able to stay in the svartalf’s chamber. I even tried switching magic systems, to go instead to the Kaaba of the Embroidered Man, or to the mountain terrace where my elemental helpers had a temple space. It didn’t help. The moment I lost lucidity, it was the bloodied jersey or the feathers of the cloak again, and again, and again.
Saturday night, I didn’t sleep. It was too much. The darkness that accompanied the feathers was overwhelming and suffocating. A sense of fear, terror, and encroaching madness was slowly wrapping around my mind. I felt like I was dying, that this was my last grasp at living. If only I could hold on to something. If only I could hold on to someone! I’d reach out, sensing someone was near, and close my hand on the sticky and bloody jersey. I jerked awake with a start, gasping for air.
Early Sunday morning, after tossing and turning again over the night, I fell asleep one last time before sunrise. I found myself in a grey expanse. I looked around, confused, turning in a circle before bumping into the Embroidered Man.
“My, how stubborn you are.” I could not see his face, but I could feel the sad parental smile. “Are you doubting yourself, again?”
“I’m going mad, again, aren’t I.” I kept looking around, wondering how long until I see the jersey again. “After all these years, and after all the fucking trite shit I’ve endured since then, why is that night fucking with me NOW?”
“You mean, this night?” I turn to face him, and see he is holding up the sports jersey, dripping with blood. I am not shocked to see it. I am quite livid that he’s making such light of it.
“Yes, that night. If you are any shade of real, then you know the depths I’ve crawled out of in my madness are far worse than this. I don’t mind seeing it again. But I would like some FUCKING SLEEP! No sleep makes Keri have fits and seizures. And that would fucking suck.”
He holds up the jersey and looks it over. The front is so blood soaked, it drips blood as if the cloth itself is bleeding. The back is losing the battle to remain white, as the flowing blood covers it.
“Beloved. I deal with the Living. I can not help you here. You need to talk with one that deals with the Dead. And I do believe, you already know who.” He places the still bleeding jersey in my hands and reaches behind me. I feel him remove something from the back of my clothes. The Embroidered Man holds up to my face, a single feather. Glossy black with a deep blue sheen. A large feather. A raven feather.
“I’m afraid to. I don’t even know how to approach her.” After I give my excuse, he kisses me on the forehead. It feels like warm honey being poured over me. I feel my knees start to buckle, and I know he has worked something over me.
“Don’t worry about approaching her. Worry about getting over your fear. I give to you, what I can, a few hours of uninterrupted sleep.” He stands up fully, and places a warm hand on my head. The touch overwhelms me. The gray expanse darkens into black and I fall into deep, dreamless sleep.
After I woke up, and muttered my thanks to the embroidered man for the deep sleep I did get, I asked a few friends for advice. The condensate of their words can be summarized as “Do what you can, if not enough, get help. Oh, and bring the jersey to Ravenwoman.” (Yes, there’s more. No, I’m not telling.) Very well then, guess I have to seek out Ravenwoman after all. ~shudder~
Once I made that decision, to proceed back to the bone-yard where she held her vigil, I was no longer afraid to see her again. I felt so strangely at ease I thought I was experiencing a deeper symptom of madness. As the hours went on during the day, I realized I was no longer seeing the bloodied jersey. I was feeling it. Draped over my back in a sticky fluid cloak. The sensation did not alarm me, as I knew it was a projection. I pondered a bit about the insanity of what I was accepting as fact. Chuckled about it. Then proceed about my day, without giving the sensation a second thought.
Late yesterday (Sunday still) evening, as I dallied about winding down for the day, and preparing for the intentional dreaming for that night, I felt a small, hard, cold hand rest gently on my shoulder. I knew it to be a projection of the svartalf, but I have never felt the svartalf when fully awake, so it surprised me. (But then again, after a few days of sleep deprivation, was I truly awake in the first place?)
“Softskin, I know I can’t dissuade you from your intentions. But be prepared. You will have to relive that moment, and give that up as well.” I heard his voice over my shoulder and behind me, as if he stood there. I didn’t have to turn my head to know that he was not. I couldn’t understand why the warning. I’ve been reliving that night several times a day for the past two weeks. What’s one more rendition?
As the hour approached, I felt the strangest push. Had I ever done anything in honor of that man afterwards? Not even a drink in his honor? Or had I shoved the memory as far back into the past as I could, not even speaking of it until recently. It seemed fitting, then, to pour a finger of honeyed whiskey (Drambuie, the only alcohol I have at the moment), and drink it in his honor.
I raised my glass. I called his face to mind. I took a sip. I almost spit that sip onto the keyboard. Merely holding it in my mouth was a test of endurance. Instead of being embraced in warmth and sweetness, the sip was bitter and sharply acerbic. If I had not poured from the bottle myself (and had taken a sip from the bottle after pouring), I would have sworn I had stumbled across some forgotten “souvenir” of my roommates. I forced myself to detect and measure each note of bitterness from the sip. Doing so was like detecting and following each tear the man cried as he laid there.
Another sip, another shock of skin rippling bitterness, another flash of remembrance of that night. As I relived the event, I saw with the sight and understanding that I have now. Details that were merely scene setting now sharply stood out from the background. The way he asked for help betrayed he knew there was no help coming. His plea wasn’t that I help him, but that I not abandon him. I saw the neighbors as they stood around us. I saw the body postures and knew they were too afraid to get closer, but could not look away. He had looked at them briefly, a flash of anger, then he turned back to me, and pleaded for me to help him. And I gripped his hand tighter.
Halfway through, the flashes changed. I saw glimpses of him with his family, with his lover, with his friends at a party. What his life could have been if he had survived that night. More tears, but not his, these were mine. The sensation of his bloodied jersey lay heavily on my back, as I continued through the choking acid the honeyed whiskey had become. And I realized what the jersey meant to me. It was an expression of my guilt. That I could do nothing for him that night. That I couldn’t stop the white jersey from becoming red. The weight of the apparition was entirely mine. Sip by sip, I drank the finger of whiskey I poured in remembrance of him. And once the glass was empty, only my tears wet my face.
Finally, time for the dreaming. Let the body relax. Wait for the onset of hypnagogia. Then will myself sideways and into a lucid dream.
I opened my eyes in the svartalf’s chambers. Specifically, in the chamber he has set aside for me. I was dressed for magic, and noted not a single black feather was anywhere to be found on me. I waited until my awareness was fully settled in the chamber, stood, and prepared the dirt pallet that served as my bed.
The svartalf stopped me. “I still say you should wait. You’re not ready for this, Softskin.” I gave him a hug and tucked his keystone into a coat pocket.
“I know. I don’t feel prepared, either. But she has been calling me since my last encounter with her. I’ve been dodging that call, because of my fear. Now look where that’s gotten me. The calls will only get stronger. And there’s something I need to lay to rest.”
Remembering a warning my Waking companions had given me, I changed my form from my “normal” human into the thurse form again. But I made sure the opal that had accompanied me from Waking into the svartalf’s chamber, also accompanied me as a thurse. The svartalf patted my pockets and gear until he found the keystone. Finding it, he said, “You have the stone with you always, if you need to escape her, come back here.” I said nothing, but mentally noted that I had tried escaping her last time, and she pulled me back to her side.
He started to settle to watch over me, then thought about it and pulled me to my feet. He led me to the warded chamber, and told me to begin my journey to Ravenwoman from the safety of the runed room. Seeing the concern on his face, I conceded. I closed my eyes, and listened to deep within myself. I felt something like the sound of a bird in flight. The beating of wings. I knew it was a raven. I let the color of the feathers envelop me and devour me from the svartalf’s chambers.
The sound changed and I opened my eyes. There was more ambient light in the boneyard this time. I did not struggle to see around me. Where before, I only saw the occasional bone fragment in the dirt, I now see I am surrounded by acres and acres of human bones. I turn slowly to fully take in the bleakness of the landscape. There is no green thing here. Even the dirt itself is the result of the decomposition of bones. Most of the bones are bleached white from exposure. A few have flesh or scarring marks on them. All are of human origin.
I feel a strange warmth behind me. I turn to see the bone-fire dancing merrily several feet from me. Beside it, is the Ravenwoman. She bears a different mask this time. Her mask and headdress cover her entirely. Yet, I know, this time, the face under the mask is not mine. Her mask is a large raven’s head. She is half crouching, half standing next to the fire. Tilting her head, this way and that way, mimicking the expressions of the raven. She is waiting, but not impatient.
I examine myself, to see how much of my will arrived. I am still in thurse form. But now, I note the netting Ravenwoman had wrapped around my right hand was still there. I tugged at it to test it, but the netting was bound fast to me. It shifted slightly, but it was not going to be removed. I checked my neck. Through the layers of leather and cloth, I felt the opal still present. It felt strangely cool against my skin. Confident I was as prepared as I was going to get, I bowed to the Ravenwoman in what I hoped was a sign of respect.
She thrust out her hand before me. The feathered gloves she wore had bare leather palms that were heavily creased from heavy usage. Before I had fully stood up, I heard her raspy voice in my head. “You have something for me.” She didn’t sound greedy nor grasping. Just matter of fact.
I reached up to the opal, intending to use it as a focus to manifest the jersey. But the heaviness on my back brought my attention elsewhere. I realized I had entered the boneyard with the jersey draped over my shoulders already, but I had become so used to its presence, I didn’t realize it. I pulled the bloody jersey off of me, noting for the first time the blood dripping from it did not stain my clothes. As I pulled it off, I called forward all the emotion, all the pain, all the memories, all that I knew of the man, and all that I had inferred whether real or imagined, into the jersey. As I did, the jersey seemed to erupt new wounds, and rip apart old wounds, so that it poured blood over my hands, onto the crushed bones under my feet.
Ravenwoman kept her hand out, patiently waiting. Somehow, I knew she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, take the jersey from me. I had to willfully give it up. I had to let it go. Silently, I laid the bleeding jersey in her open hand. I realized I was reluctant to leave it there, but I knew I had to. I laid it in her hand and took a step backwards, putting the jersey out of my reach.
She closed her hand around the jersey, squishing it slightly. She brought it under her raven head mask, and smelled it noisily. A few deep intakes from the jersey, she was clearly relishing the scent that rose from it. She sighed slightly as she lowered the bleeding jersey. She nodded in approval, the beak of the mask bobbing with her.
Then she handed it back to me, placing the dripping cloth back in my hands. I looked at her in astonishment.
“Now, finish it. Finish what was started that night.” Her raspy voice strong in my mind. She tilted her head from side to side as she watched me. Again, giving the impression of being a giant raven watching me.
I turned to the bone-fire, and took a step forward. The heat of the fire blocked me physically and pushed me back to where I started. I pulled together my resolve and tried stepping forward again. Again, I am repelled. I drop my ego, and try to make myself as humble minded as possible. (Ha!) For the third time, the bone-fire rejects my approach.
I turn to Ravenwoman, admit my defeat, and ask her what I needed to do. I noted a tone of amusement in her answer. “You’re dying.”
The word didn’t surprise me. It is what I call my menstrual cycle after all, a type of death. What I am surprised about, is despite knowing so many myths and taboos about menstruation, I never thought I’d be personally affected by it in my eclectic mishmash path. I openly acknowledge to Ravenwoman, my menstrual bleeding had indeed begun.
“The dead can’t approach the fire. Only the living.” While I wondered the many questions her statement had quickened, I barely noticed her reaching into the bone-fire and grabbing a handful of flame. I looked up just in time for her to pour the flame over my head. The flame took to me quickly, and soaked into my flesh before I could begin to lift a hand. The flame sank quickly through my body into my uterus. Once in my womb, I felt a searing heat followed by a severe cramp. I doubled over from the pain and used breathing techniques to ride the pain out.
The pain eventually eased. The fire poured in me eventually extinguished. I stood up fully, still grasping the blood soaked cloth, and approached the bone-fire. The heat of the fire no longer hindered me. The flames themselves were no longer painful. I walked to the edge of the flame, and gently laid the jersey across the inflamed bones. The fire quickly wrapped around the jersey and began to feast on it.
But something didn’t feel right. The offering of the jersey to the bone-fire was a step in the right direction. But it wasn’t enough. I still felt the heaviness of his death on me. I felt tears assaulting my face from my eyes. I stepped back from the fire, and turned to Ravenwoman. I tried to tell her, “It wasn’t right.” But no sound came out. She stared at me, then bent down and plucked a long leg bone from the ground. The leg bone was hollow, so she stopped up one end with dirt.
I took a step closer to her, to see what she was doing. She lifted her raven head mask slightly, just enough to reveal her mouth. She grabbed me fiercely, and kissed me on the lips, forcing my mouth open to hers. She suddenly breathed in sharply, pulling all the air from my lungs and leaving me gasping.
She let go of me, turning to the hollow leg bone and filled the leg bone with the air she withdrew from me. I fell to my knees, gasping for air, wondering if this was what collapsed lungs felt like. I watched her quickly seal up the leg bone with more dirt, and idly throw it into the bone-fire.
A sudden nausea over took me. I start dry-heaving as I feel something dark and oily turn in the depths of my flesh. I see the robed feet of Ravenwoman, standing just out of reach before me. Just as I start to ask what was happening, the oily mass concentrates in my stomach and my dry-heaving turns into actual retching. The mass trickled out of my mouth like a thin oily bile. As black as pitch, and reeking of decay. It collects in a small pool on the dirt in front of me. It was just a little amount, if measured I would say about 1/4 cup of fluid, but as it came up, it felt like the dregs of a hundred barrels of liquified regret, pain, and conceit.
Once the mass was rejected by my body, I felt greatly relieved, but not completely. I sat back, catching my breath. Ravenwoman reached down, and scooped up the dirt surrounding the putrid bile. She clucks as she throws the bile, dirt, and all onto the fire, which flames to great heights as the bile is inflamed.
I stagger to my feet, to watch the flames. But instead of fire, I see him. He’s standing on the bones already tossed in the fire. The jersey was lifted by the flames, and I see an apparition of the dead man filling out the jersey, just as he wore it the night he died. The cloth is not burning, but the blood in it is gradually being consumed by the flames.
I cry to see him. I cry because I know the piece of him I have carried with me all these years is finally being released. He looks at me. He sees me clearly through the flames. He speaks to me in Spanish, but I understand the words clearly.
“Thank you. You are blessed by God for this.” I knew he referred to the Catholic deity. I had learned after his death, he was deeply Catholic despite being gay. “I’m so sorry I held on to you so tight. I knew you couldn’t save me. But I was afraid to let go. I was afraid to be alone. I didn’t know how to let go. I didn’t know God would be waiting for me. I just held on to what I could. I hope I didn’t make things hard for you. You carried me so quietly. You never complained. You just kept going with your life. I’m sorry.”
I note the blood in the jersey is almost done being consumed by the flames. Leaving behind a white cloth that increases in brightness and light. The slashes are reweaving themselves. The garment is being made whole.
“In a dream, or was it a dream, I saw my mother when the police told her I was dead. I watched her cry and cry, praying to the Virgin Mary for the release of my soul. The police told her that a stranger had tried to help me. That the stranger, you, had held my hand as I was dying and I didn’t die alone. That my body wasn’t desecrated. I heard her thank God, and the Virgin Mary for sending that stranger. I wasn’t worried about my family after that. But I still couldn’t let go. But, now I can.”
The bone-fire has completed burning away the wounds and the blood. The jersey itself was now in flame. As it burned, the apparition of the man began to fade.
“Thank you. For carrying me. For remembering me. For staying close to me. For holding me. You don’t have to hold me anymore. I can go now. When I am taken to the glory of God, I will have to atone for my sins. As I confess them, I will ask the angels, and the Virgin Mary to plead to God to leave you be. You are not of God, but you are doing the right thing. They should leave you alone, and let you be.”
He closes his eyes and surrenders his last to the flames. The jersey is consumed by the fire, every scrap and thread. As the last hints of the jersey dissolve into flame, the apparition of the man dissolves into light, and fades.
I stand there, crying, before the bone-fire. I can feel a lightness in myself. I know, it is complete. I have been healed in the process of releasing him. I cry, not from guilt or dismay. I cry because his journey has ended. (I cry, because it is beautiful.)
I turn to Ravenwoman. Again I find myself not able to speak, but words are not needed now. She steps to me, pulling a sleek raven feather from her cloak. Stepping behind me, she pinches the skin of my upper back and pierces my skin with the sharp quill of the feather. I feel the feather fusing with my skin at once.
Her manhandling of me complete, she shoos me away roughly, almost violently. She turns her back and busies herself with more bones, tossing them onto the bone-fire. I know my time here has ended. I bow, and will myself to return to the svartalf’s chambers.
Stumbling forward in the svartalf’s warded chamber, he catches me as I lose my balance. He immediately spies the raven feather piercing my skin and wrinkles his face in disapproval. He guides me to a chair, and puts a cup of water in my hands, which I greedily drink. Thinking me distracted by the water, he tugs lightly on the feather. I think, to judge how secure Ravenwoman’s ‘gift’ was embedded in my skin. I felt the skin pulled with the feather, and smelled an oddly bitter smokey scent. The svartalf’s fingers were scorched by the feather. He licked them absentmindedly to cool the burn. I finish the water without saying anything. He broke the silence first.
“Did you succeed, Softskin? Did you accomplish what you had set out to do?” He eyes the feather. “Did you pay too high a price?”
I place the now empty cup on the table. “I succeeded, my friend. I finished what needed to be finished. I paid the price that was due.” I stand and stretch. “And now, I need to head on home.”
He nods and stands with me. “You do not need to fear me, or these chambers, Softskin. I do like your company. You are good to sit with. Not like others that barge through my and others chambers, as if they are lords over us.” I look at the svartalf in askance, but he speaks no more. I kiss him lightly on the head, prompting him to wave his arms at me in annoyance. We smile at each other. I close my eyes and will myself home.
I wake up in my bed, sunlight playing with the curtains and the far wall. I feel light. And I realize, the jersey is gone. The weight of that night, is gone. The guilt and the pain of remembering are gone. I’ve let him go. After nine years, I finally let go.
I will not be surprised if I have to do this again later. I understand letting go of anything is not always a one time process. But if I do, I won’t be afraid. As I heal my issues, I’m sure to uncover more that were overshadowed by the noise.
I get out of bed, and make myself coffee, ready to face what old thing in my life is about to become new.
And in the cloudless sky, the sun shines with the brightness of a new day.
Make of that, what you may.