Mxtl is not in the mood for games. Her rattling shook the lies and fears I had used to prop up my ego off of me in large unmendable pieces. Deprived of that exoskeleton that I am not surprised to learn I depend on far too much than I should, I fell to the hard floor of her underworld unable to move. Shake by shake, rattle by rattle, she stripped me of my overworld agency. Continue reading “Dream Journal: 2014-07-21.01”
Was trying to sort out a thing or two by using the cowrie shells to divine where to start. Wound up obsessing about the biases of the technique and how they can be used to manipulate the odds in favor of a desired outcome, even when I am trying my best not to consciously do so.
The demonstrator came back and watched me fumble for a bit.
“Caught up in the details, eh?”
“Yea. If the fuzzy borders of This and That answers weren’t bad enough, there’s also the uneven weight distribution of the shells to contend with.”
“Maybe you should have gotten some official Vegas gambling dice.”
“Those would be statistically perfect for the first ten throws, after that, the surface is familiar enough to the touch for the hand to recognize individual dice. Another hundred throws, and the surface will be worn enough to introduce weight bias to the results.”
“Kinda like people, huh. When you first meet them, everyone is on their best behavior and trying to act proper and perfect around each other. But as you work with the same people over and over again, you start seeing the scratches and the dents in their personality. You learn who will give you a straight answer when you need it and who makes the best coffee. You decide you’re going to keep hanging with these folks anyway, because you know them now. They are comfortable. They are your friends.” He smiles a crooked smile. “Tell me, girl. Why are you still jealous of [redacted]’s cards?”
Ow. If he wasn’t… “Because they are the tarot equivalent of the Velveteen Rabbit. And I have nothing that comes close. Not yet.”
“And how did the Velveteen Rabbit lose his sheen?”
“By being loved and carried and used up.”
“Fit the question to the method. Use a different tool to start if necessary, and use the shells to verify as a follow up. Don’t forget, to the shells, you are the outsider. You guys get comfortable with each other.”
“Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir.”
“Don’t thank me yet, girl.” He started chuckling.
“If you mean not for me to thank you because I haven’t encountered the nefarious and underhanded reason why you are suddenly teaching me cowrie shell divination techniques after months of silence, your brother has taught me well, Sir. You’re up to some shit, and involving me as a game piece. I’m no Pawn, Sir. If I’m going to be deployed, it’s going to be as Bitch. And by Bitch, I mean Queen.”
He tips his hat in a very formal bow and leaves. His chuckling remains and dogs me back to the Waking.
He showed me a squat cup made from folded paper. Crude, but effective, and most of all, devoid of external influences. He put the fourteen cowrie shells in the cup, shook them, and turned the cup upside down on the table swiftly.
“Ask your question, has to be a Yes or No kind of thing.”
“Will I learn something out of this demonstration?”
He laughed in sincere enjoyment at my snark. “Good question! Snark for snark, then? The shells will teach you how to read the answer.” He lifted the cup and fourteen cowrie shells tumbled out in a loose pile. “Don’t touch! They are where they are. Your shells are loud, let’s see if you’ve been listening.”
I looked over the pile, the tightness of it, the stray shells that slid away, which ones were slit up, which ones were slit down. He said this was a ‘Yes or No’ divination, but I saw the grays between black and white.
“Yes, but it won’t be what I wanted to learn from it. There are things here for me to grasp, if I’m willing to dig through the surface instruction to search for it. There are other things that will escape me, this time.”
He crossed his arms and nodded. “If I forced you into a one-word answer?”
“The answer is ‘Yes’.”
“And if I forced you to qualify that answer?”
“The answer is ‘Yes, but it won’t all be what I expected.’”
“What if I just came up and told you to tell me a thing using the shells like this?”
“I’d make you come up with a pertinent question worded for this style.”
“You should do that elsewhere.” He nodded and tapped the side of his nose. Before I could rebut him, he placed a box on the table. “Here, since you’re heavy handed, use this box to practice in before using the tray. The tray doesn’t have high walls, and you’ll lose shells before you’ve learned how to be gentle.”
He scooped up the shells into the paper cup again. The interior of the box was marked with a circle that was as large as the box would allow. The circle was marked like pie slices, that varied in count as I watched. The slices were given labels, some symbolic like astrological signs, some written in tiny lettering. These also changed in definition as I watched.
“Sometimes, you’ll need all fourteen. Sometimes, you need only one. Fit the method to the question within reason. If the question is poorly worded or just plain bullshit, deny it.” He spoke sample questions and the markings in the box adjusted to best answer his question. After each question, he would ask me how many shells were needed to answer and to explain how to read their tumbling.
He gave me the box, the crumpling paper cup, and the shells. “Go practice.”
He was right to have me use the high-walled box at first. I do not have a subtle hand.
“Your time grows short, so I will only tease you and leave you wanting.” I mocked him by moaning in deprived lust. He laughed with hearty peals. “It’s good you are able to have fun.” He placed a wood platter on the table. It was the size of a dinner plate, but two fingers deep. The slightly recessed interior was perfectly flat and round. There were no markings on the oiled wood. The ridge felt more decorative than functional.
“You will have this. One way or the other. But you will have this. Recognize it?”
I shook my head. He smiled. He handed me the shells and made an elaborate show of hands to show me he held nothing. Rubbing his hands over the wood platter, something like fine sand or salt flowed from his hands to the wood. After pouring enough to cover the interior completely, he flipped the platter like a cook flipping a pan, moving the sand around until it covered the bottom in an even layer.
I recognized what he was doing, but said nothing. What I suspected is forbidden to me.
He smiled and winked, reading my thoughts and teased, “No one is teaching you that, girl. And even I am not teaching you anything you don’t already know. Besides, how can I teach that when I don’t know it myself!” At that moment, I recognized who my demonstrator is, this time. He laughed again at my startled face.
“You have loud shells, girl. Listen to them more.”
Me: “The Crooked Man with the Crooked Cane, and the Mangy Dog that follows the same…”
Rummer John: “That’s a lot of words when just saying ‘Papa Legba’ would work more efficiently.”
Me: “I’m a writer. I use words. Mostly in horrid combinations and to the distress of the teachers of my youth. Deal.”
RJ: ~hard laughter~ “Okay… this Crooked Man… what of him?”
Me: “He wasn’t surprised by the shells.”
RJ: “So it would appear.”
Me: “And neither was La Sirene when she challenged me for them.”
RJ: “This too, is in the public record.”
Me: “I’m looking at fourteen shells, and not seeing the shenanigans it took to get those shells on my car that day.”
RJ: “Go on…”
Me: “You want something pithy and cliché, or an honest observation?”
RJ: “There is no such thing as an honest observation. Every observer has an agenda to find confirmation for. Speak your mind, Girl.”
Me: “I’m using the wrong value system.”
RJ: “Well, hell, you might be maturing after all. Here, have some rum to celebrate.”
RJ: ~hard laughter~
From Tumblr, an anonymous person asked: “Hi! New reader and I am lost/confused about the shells that have been mentioned, and the “high price” that was paid for them. What was the price?”
The reason why I wasn’t supposed to have them, and what I had to do to redeem myself for having them placed in my possession is scattered across too many posts with too much backstory to sift through. It’s too early for a link-bomb so here’s the gist of it.
The use of cowrie shells for Ifá divination is linked to various African Diasporic Traditions (ADT), and to various traditions still practiced on the African continent today. All of the Ifá methods are closed practices. You must be an initiate of the tradition to cast and interpret them, and even then, there are certain other requirements that must be met.
I am acquainted with various ADT entities, but I am not initiated into any of the traditions that honor them. I’m an Outsider, and with bastard blood at that. I will never be initiated into those traditions. Some entities allow me to tread on the outskirts of their “territory”, but at a price. Certain things are forbidden to me. Certain obligations, unique to me, must be met. I was explicitly forbidden to possess cowrie shells, not even as decoration.
I was in a relationship during this time. My partner was told of this. I often made reference to cowrie shells in my writings and speech, as a symbol that I am not entitled to everything I want. I have limits. It became a running joke. He would offer to purchase some for me. I would remind him of the law pronounced on me. We’d laugh and continue on. The relationship came to an end. My public writings did not.
One day, the topic came up again in my public writings. I had been having dreams/visions of them again. I made mention of such, noted what they could symbolically mean, and proceeded with no fucks. I came outside the next day to find my ex had placed a small bundle of something under my car’s windshield wiper.
The moment I picked up the bundle, I was condemned, even though I did not know what was inside. I was not to have them in my possession. At all. Taboo.
When I opened the bag and saw the fourteen cowrie shells, I mourned. There are many gods, entities, and Powers that I will go head-to-head with chaotic glee, but there are some that I will bow to in respect, and a few I will genuflect to in mortal fear. No way around it, I was fucked.
Publicly, it looks like entity let me off the hook with a slap on the wrist. After all, it’s not like I intentionally went out to obtain them. I didn’t tell my ex to bring me any. I made it clear to one and all that I wasn’t supposed to have them, or even hold them. I was tested by another of his pantheon, and found righteous (in this matter). I had to undergo a purging of the condemnation on my soul and be restored by him. He later gave me permission to keep those specific shells, but at a price of being forbidden to use them according to ADT divination traditions. I have to come up with my own methods. Not too bad. Right?
But the cowrie shells were also the last straw that opened my eyes to my ex’s behavior towards me. I called him out as a stalker, a manipulator, and an abuser. It wasn’t enough to just “Name and Shame”, I had to destroy all bridges between us if I was going to be safe. I cut away a piece of myself doing so. It’s been nearly five months, and that wound is still raw.
Fourteen cowrie shells shattered my naivete and self-delusions about myself, and the person I had trusted. As far as I’m concerned, those shells are carved from my bones and soaked in my blood. I paid a high price for them. Never shall they depart from me.
Passing through a nondescript forest in a nondescript area, I come to a communal fire made at the crossroads of two paths. A moment’s rest would be good, as I still have far to travel and I am unable to use faster means to get there. I am alone at the fire so I pull out the little bag of cowrie shells to entertain myself with.
“I see you have cowrie shells.” The stranger’s words were heard before her footsteps. She approached from behind me but made a wide circling approach before crouching at the fire several feet off to my left.
“Yup.” I noted which forests were around me and which venues were available for me to make a hasty exit if required. I saw things in the forests and recognized them even as they recognized me. I was safer at the fire with the lone stranger.
“They sure do look pretty in that bag.” She leaned over to watch me roll them from hand to hand. Her stance was one of curiosity and ill placed to make an attempt at snatching them.
“Yup.” I sensed more movement behind me. Now fully aware of the dangers, I note what is where but say nothing. I only continue rolling the shells in my hands.
“I have pretties as well.” The woman’s words weren’t a statement, but the prelude to an offer.
“You say now.” It should be clear from my response that I am in no mood for trade. But then again, fire is clearly hot and there are still people that reach for it.
“Perhaps…”, she starts her doddling speech.
I don’t allow her the luxury of completing her formal offer. “Nope.”
She rocks back on her heels in offense. “Now, that’s rude of you. You don’t even know what I was going to say!”
I don’t look at her. My face is aimed at the shells still, but my sight is still monitoring what is going on around us. “Your want is written on your face. You want these shells. You’re going to offer something in trade for them. I am going to decline the trade. You are going to be upset and offer more. I am going to decline again. You are going to berate me for not using the shells. I might laugh at you, but most likely just give you a smug look of denial. You’re going to threaten me. I will laugh at you then. You’re going to try to force them from me and find out I’m not an easy mark. The only thing I don’t know yet is if you will leave under your own power, or if the only thing you leave is a fading grease spot in the ground.”
Her face twitches in a mix of anger and surprise. She says nothing, however, and fixates her sight on the moving shells in my hands.
I allow myself a brief mirthful smirk. In the shadows uncomfortably close behind us, inaudible movement reassures me of my safety. I’ll be okay. Her, not so much.
“Then… then why do you keep them if you don’t use them?” Her tone reminds me of a child wanting something they have been denied. If outright asking doesn’t work, let’s try whining instead!
“Because I paid a dear price for them. A price you can not compensate me for, ever. And I don’t use them now, because I have not learned their language yet.”
Her brow furrowed. “You have fourteen of them.”
“Yup.” An accurate count.
“You can spare one.” Again her whining was more demand than proposition.
“Nope.” I chuckled at her persistence.
She snorted as she glanced around us. It was clear she was stalling for time but what she had expected to happen was obviously not occurring. “Not even one!”
“They came as a set. They stay as a set. But already I have learned something about them.”
She calmed herself and adjusted her seated position. Again she said nothing but was now clearly impatient about more than just my denials.
I poured the shells back into the bag and turned my head to face her for the first time. “I have learned they are so valuable, you are willing to be the patsy to hold my attention while two of your henchman circle around me in hopes of jumping me from behind.”
Her eyes grew large at the accusation. She shifted slightly away from and looked around in near panic.
“Funny, how information is hoarded and shared. You think I’m alone. And ostensibly, I am. But I am not without my own associates. Associates that are more opportunistic than I am. For while you served as the bait to hold my attention, I served as the bait to bring my associates their lunch.” Behind me in the creeping shadows came the sounds of bones breaking and something wet being forcibly ripped. “And now, it’s just you, and me. Just like we started.”
She stands and backs away from me nervously until her foot hit the edge of the marked clearing. “I’ll leave you to your company, then. Good day.” She turned and quickly danced away from the path’s edge. The collected shadows were eager for her company but as long as she remained on the marked paths, she was safe from them. She started to taunt them until remembering that she was not safe from me. She darted another worried glance back at me, then quickly moved down the path away from the fire and my sight.
“Good day.”, I spoke to her wake. As I turned over the bag of shells in my hand I mused, “Just what have you become that so many wish to acquire you as such high costs?”.
I’m sitting at the desk, in my room…
I’m sitting at the fire, outside the lair.
And I am not alone.
“Normally, I’d stay for coffee. But there isn’t the time. Good evening, girl.” I look up to watch an elderly black gentleman, with a crooked cane, come around the fire. Behind him, a large mangy and menacing black dog looks at me with friendly eyes.
“Papa Le… um… Sir?”
He laughs. “You’re surprised to see me? After what you’ve been given?”
“Very surprised, Sir. I recognize the cane. I recognize the dog. I recognize your gait. But I don’t recognize your face, nor your clothes. And this is the last place I would expect to see you.” I remained kneeling by the fire. When he continued to approach, I started to stand up. Quickly he tapped me on my back with his cane. It was a light touch, but it undid my knees and I fell back down.
“There’s a time for decorum, girl, and a time to get shit done. The matter of the cowries have to be settled, or things will go from bad to worse.” As he spoke I felt a wave of nausea overtake me. I was struggling to hold it back. If this is Papa Legba, I can’t allow myself to be ill in front of him. That would just be rude. If this isn’t Papa Legba, I need my wits to figure out who this is, and how to extricate myself from the scene.
The cane tapped me lightly on the shoulder. Just enough for me to feel the chill of the worn smooth wood. Each tap unsettled my stomach more and more. “Let it out, girl! Let it out! I know you mean to be prim and proper before me, like you are to my brother!” He laughs. “But this time, girl, let it out!” He taps me again and I can’t hold back. I turn so not to splash against him and vomit onto the ash dusted ground. “That’s it! Just let it happen.” He chuckles as a second wave overtakes me, and my seemingly empty stomach rejects a significant amount of matter. I am reminded why I have a revulsion to even the sight of Bubble (tapioca) Tea.
“Bitter fruit has bitter seeds. You don’t want that to hang around in your system. You’ll get quite ill.” The second wave eases and I feel a little more empty than I did before. I start to push the effluence into the fire. What came out of me was repulsive. Offensive. I am reminded of the poisoned apple that felled Snow White, but I don’t know what I took in that would do this to me. I just have an instinct to burn it. All of it. Let the fire consume and purge it away.
He taps me on the shoulder again. I feel something shake loose deep within me. Another wave of nausea comes up, but I don’t fight it this time. I just make sure I’m aiming towards the fire and not towards him. “He knew. He knew because you told him. You even told him why, once. But the why doesn’t matter. All that matters is he knew you weren’t to have them, and he put them in your hand anyway. Once he placed them on your car, you were undone. There was no way to know not to take it, without taking it. If he didn’t know, you wouldn’t be ill. But he knew. And now here you are, girl, puking your guts out like you done drunk too much.” The whole time he was speaking, he was tapping me gently on the back with his crooked cane.
I vomited so much. Every time I thought I was done, he would tap me and more would come up. But as I vomited, I did not feel better. As the loose matter escaped from me, I felt something twisting inside me. Something squirming and moving. Something trying to burrow itself deeper even as my body was rejecting the putrid matter that had surrounded it.
“You feel it, girl. I can see the horror on your face. Yes. That too must come out.” He stopped gently tapping and started giving me bone jarring whacks on my lower back. “I know you don’t think me to be who I am. That doesn’t matter right now. Open your mouth, girl, and let that thing come out!” He slaps my back with fierceness and the squirming thing is jarred loose. I vomit forcefully and feel it squirming out my throat. The sensation opens my stomach even more and I add more to the ground. But what trickled out was normal bile. With the creature now ejected, my body was empty.
“Quick! Kill it! I can’t do it, girl, you have to! Pierce it!” I stared at the squirming thing long enough to note it was slime coated, shaped like an eel, finned like a fish, with a lamprey’s mouth. As I stared, I saw the fins start to elongate. It stopped squirming randomly, and was trying to walk on the fins like a lungfish. Trying to get away from the fire.
Oh hell naw.
I grabbed a sharp rock from the fire’s containing ring, ignoring the heat of it, and spiked the fish-thing through the head. It jerked violently as I impaled it, pinning it to the ground. I did not release the rock until it had stopped all movement.
“Eww.” He laughs at my summation. I pulled the rock up, with the fish-thing seared to its still hot surface, and threw it into the fire. The flames hissed at first, then began destroying the creature. I pushed the dirt surrounding the vomit into the fire as well. The fire did not recede from my demand, but accepted all that was pushed past the containing stones. For good measure, I threw in a few sticks of dry firewood.
A glass of water was held before me. Without thinking, I took it, mumbled my thanks, and drank half of it before remembering the situation. In mid-gulp, I looked up at the man with wary eyes. He only laughed more.
“The cowries are yours, girl. You’ve paid my price for having them. You are free to so as you will with them. You owe me nothing more.”
“Forgive my caution, Sir. But I still don’t believe you are who you appear to be. Not here, not at this fire. I still think I’m seeing what I want to see.”
“And the leech?”
“An expression of my guilt.”
“Ah.” He laughs more. “In that case, until you have settled it in your mind, I suggest being very careful what you do with the cowries. Guilt is a powerful thing.” He chuckles as he turns and starts to limp away on his crooked cane. “Throw the glass into the fire as well, girl. Since you don’t think I’m here, let there be nothing here to prove it.” He stops, turns, and looks at me with humor. “And just where would you expect to find me, anyway?”
“The crossroads, where I set up the impromptu altar.” The scene around me changes, and I am back at that dirt intersection again. The stones are still in place, but overrun with weeds. “Now, see, if you were who you claim to be, I would not have had to think of this place to be brought here.”
He laughs, and the scene shifts again to my fire. “Oh girl, my brother said you’re as stubborn as a river in flood. Now I know what he means.”
He turns and walks away from the fire. His dog sniffs at me in curiosity then runs off after his master. I finish off the water and chuck the glass into the fire, wondering if I just got out of one trouble, only to jump into another.
I look down at my hands, and look up to find I’m back in my room once more. According to the clock, only five minutes has passed.
… ~later that night, after I’ve gone to bed~ …
Wow. I don’t remember this ocean. It reminds me of the shores of Puerto Rico. Beautiful. But just where am I?
“Neutral ground.” I turn to the speaker and see two women stepping out of the ocean onto the shore before me. The lead woman is slightly darker than me, with long and thick nappy hair arranged in loops of braids and twists. She is adorned in pearls, thin gold chains, and ornate shells. In her right hand she has a scepter-staff on which hangs many large shells, held in place with gold wires and carefully draped kelp. She wears a blue-green dress, the color of tropical shallows. The dress is adorned with swirls of iridescent scales the size of quarters, with long thin white shells embroidered as accents. I have a sudden vision of a coat-of-arms, with the scales and shells on the shield with dolphins attending and a crown above.
The other dark skinned woman is dressed in gown of the same blue-green color, but her hair is wrapped up in lengths of cloth the same color. She wears a few bracelets and a choker from which hung a scallop as a medallion. She was attending to the grand woman, keeping the waves from twisting her elaborate gown as she came to a halt, not quite on dry land, but not quite in the sea either.
I had an idea who this might be, but I said nothing about it.
“Good day, Madam. The sea is showing me all its treasures today. How lovely you are.” I bowed in respect.
She took my honest admiration pleasantly. “I shall be quick, for I know you have not much time. The cowry shells. I would have them, please.” She held out her opened left hand towards me. She smiled in anticipation.
“I can not give them to you, Madam. They are not mine to give.” I smiled grimly and bowed.
Her smile faded for a moment. “I happen to know you have been released from the binding my brother placed upon you. If you are still concerned, tell those that ask, that I took them. This way, your hands are clean. They belong to me anyway, having come from my realm. Return them to me.”
I looked at her and smiled sadly. “Forgive me, Madam. I don’t know you. I’ve never met you. I don’t know what tells are true and what is playing on my ignorance. I don’t even know for sure if who I saw earlier was really who I think I saw. If I give them to you, and I am wrong, then I will have poured out more trouble upon myself. My doubt is greater than my understanding.”
She tapped her scepter staff in annoyance, causing the large shells to clink against each other sharply. I gasped in fear they would break. She noted and laughed. “You worry? About this? You worry about the wrong things, Weaver. You care too much for those things you have no power over. I tell you again, give me the shells. You will not come to harm for this. I want them, and you are free to give them. What would you do with them, anyway?”
Behind her, her attendant muttered, “Do not think because you are safe from a few that you are safe from the many. My Lady is being very patient with you. If you were to ask for something in kind, a payment of sorts, she would grant it if it were asked honestly.”
“I’m not even safe from the few!” I sighed. “Lady, Queen of the Oceans, if my conscience was clear, I would gladly give you all fourteen of them and ask for nothing in return. But my conscience is muddled. I can not give them to you as such.” I bowed with outstretched hands. “I can not give you what I do not feel is mine.”
I expected her to be angry. She smiled and laughed instead. When I stood up, she looked on me in judgment. “Very well, Weaver. Your mind is resolute, I see.” From her tone, I feel like I’ve passed a test I did not know I was taking. “I can not force you to give them up. Nor will I force you to act against your conscience. Good day, Weaver.”
She turned and began wading into deeper water. Her attendant kept the waves away until the Lady was under the surface. The attendant looked back at me with a curious mix of wonder and disappointment, then dove into the waters after her mistress.
A large wave broke at my feet, spraying me with seawater. Surprisingly cold, the temperature shocked me out of the dream.
Make of that, what you may.