The Code of Us

If we wrote what we said, one might think it a code
and so we seem already to outsiders, speaking in
anacoluthons, clear enough to each other, mostly–
this page, torn from an obscure imprint, is what
I saved from that voyage of lost images, and I am
overcome

by being there again, a ghost in Taos, looking up
that ladder that led to nowhere, and into the red,
weeping eyes of Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, and
listening to Blue Spruce Standing Deer’s memories
of his grandfather, bringing us into so many worlds
all at once.

This page from Gertrude Stein’s portrait of Mabel.
There were more but I kept only this one — why? —
and why these lines to spark just one poem of us,
that code to speak our language which is also bent
and alone and abandonment and not vanishing,
letters cut

from some synchronicity, from one of our alternate
eras; I still want them to find one day a trove of clues
to our escape, that last great joke on civilization, that
masterful plan we hatched in Glenwood Springs,
that would with your luck and my art leave them
wondering.

The image is of a souvenir from the 2016 exhibition Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns and the West at the Harwood Museum in Taos. The poem is dedicated to my husband, Steve, who’s going in for surgery for lung cancer on Monday. A hospital is a terrible place for an alcoholic; I don’t envy what he’ll go through if he has a prolonged stay. But I also renounce the guilt of not having done enough to make the experience easier. I happen to believe in free will, for better or worse. He’s always said “That’s your luck” whenever anything good has ever happened to us, but he’s got to have plenty of his own to have made it this long as an unrepentant rocker. Here’s hoping it holds out a little longer. I’d like us to make it back to Taos one more time.

Putting this out to the universe on the same principle that carrying an umbrella ensures it won’t actually rain.

Mudita

Compersion
sounds so cold,
clinical.

Mudita
spreads its arms
wide open.

Enfolding
more than these
loves of ours.

I have to thank Jennifer Patino for giving me just the form for this poem. I hadn’t known tricubes were a thing before, and you can’t ask for a more apt frame for an ode to polyamory.

I’ve always hated the word compersion, which is largely unknown outside the Poly community. It’s supposed to describe a feeling of vicarious happiness when your partner is enjoying time with someone else. But it’s a product of the late 20th century and as much as I agree that 1) we need a word for this feeling and 2) we need it to extend outside polyamory (as people have argued compersion should do), I just can’t get past its problematic origins. (A word rooted in colonialism, repurposed by a white male cult leader is just never going to sit well with me.)

Of all the alternatives that I’ve seen offered, only one really speaks to me: the Buddhist term mudita. It seems to better capture the feeling itself: “the pleasure that comes from delighting in other people’s well-being”. It’s often used to describe parents’ feelings for their children’s happiness or success. I would like to see this level of desexualized joy attached to non-monogamous relationships, which are too often stigmatized in the popular mind. There’s something about compersion that makes it sound closer to compulsion than compassion – a kind of aberrance. Mudita has a gentleness that discourages judgement.

I think about the borrowed words English has for emotions and find it unsettling that almost everybody knows what Schadenfreude is, but can’t come up with a similarly concise term for vicarious happiness. Considering its proto-Indo-European roots, English could really stand to give a lot more love to Sanskrit and Pali. Or take more love from it, as the case may be.

Carl Bloch – In a Roman Osteria (1866) – via Wikimedia Commons.
I love how even the cat looks like “Jeez, take a picture, it’ll last longer!”

Short Story at THE CHAMBER MAGAZINE: “Mother of Sands”

Photo by PIXNIO

I’m happy to announce that my dark science fiction short story, “Mother of Sands” was published today in The Chamber Magazine. (Kind thanks to Phil Slattery for accepting two of my works this month. The poem I mentioned in my last post will appear next week; a little more background will be posted here at that time.)

Here is a subtle soundtrack for your reading:

By the way, writers of dark fiction and horror, The Chamber is open for submissions — I’d love to see the magazine build on its strong foundations so far!

Scary

When I shared the news with my folks that I was going to have a poem published in The Chamber Magazine, and that I was excited to write a lot more horror and dark fantasy this year, she texted me: “I never really thought of you as a scary person. Congrats!”

I’m still smiling about that. What a delight to realize, after almost 50 years, that your mother’s greatest hope for you was that one day you’d become a scary person! And before you say that’s probably not what she meant… hah, you really don’t know my folks.

So if the past few weeks are any gauge, I think 2021 is going to be a creative year, as well as a difficult and painful one. This is, after all, why people write the macabre: life is the ultimate horror show, but at least on the page, you get to direct the shocks. To return, though, to The Chamber — if this is your jam, there is some top-notch writing there. I particularly enjoyed the article, “H.R. Giger: His Dreams, Our Nightmares”, by John A. DeLaughter; Hans, I’d have killed for just one dinner at your house. (Kidding! Or… well, it depends on who I’d have had to bump off. But seriously, the dinner scene in his documentary… These are my people.) Also, I’m very excited to see what Jennifer Patino has in her upcoming drop; her poetry is astounding.

My piece, “Sonata No. 6 (for Julian Scriabin)” comes out Jan. 22; I’ll post a link here then, but in the meantime, enjoy a little musical backstory. In the dark, if you dare. (Apologies to your immortal soul.)

There are far better videos out there from a sound-value standpoint, but I love Ashkenazy’s interpretation — and his courage…

Considering the Void, 5 am

Reading about geology and deep time
and Norse mythology before bed
apparently means that I wake up
with a line like this in mind:

There were tardigrades
in the Ginnungagap.


I blink into the before-alarm dawn,
pondering insanity, and the vision
of the great Primeval Cow licking
a little water bear into being.

I hope everyone’s winter rituals have been restorative and strengthening for the season ahead. My Yule, which is not precisely the same Yule celebrated by my Wiccan friends but some of the work is the same, felt like an unusually important one, and the magic was powerful because I actually slept. (Alas, the drug I mentioned a few posts ago ended up being utterly useless, so we’re back to more ancient practices and potions.)

The year is closing on a difficult new prospect: they found cancer in one of my husband’s lungs last week, so surgery will be among the first adventures of 2021. We have our consultation Tuesday to set the date and generally prepare him for an experience that he’s not in the best shape to deal with. My task for both of us is to recognize the outcomes that are subject to influence, and manage expectations, and generally continue to be the one friend sturdy enough to have lived with him for 20 years. We’d both like there to be at least a few more of those, so we’ll see what we can do. My consultation with the Tarot, as I promptly showed him, was favorable.

The little poem above is of course a true story. The books are Robert Macfarlane’s Underland, and Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology (incredibly, you can listen to the whole audiobook (read by the author, 6.5 hours) here). Very different books, superb in very different ways. Macfarlane’s is unforgettable — though I must admit I can’t be completely sure he mentions tardigrades… I think maybe they were just in the news while I was reading the book. So if you’re interested in the book solely for water bears, don’t be disappointed. There is much more to amaze you, and make you deliciously claustrophobic, to be sure.

The Bookshop Band is amazing

Above the gorge, listening

Here is a silence
to humble anyone.
To confound the roar
of a restless mind.

In time, you learn
to cast that noise
into the chasm,
along with your fear.

To keep your distance
from the yearning edge.
Observe the millennia.
Let your cells respire.

Far below in the canyon,
the Rio rushes unheard
and no wind whispers
in the furnace heat.

One sound only
drags its brush across
the canvas of space:
a raven’s graw.

I’ve been missing New Mexico desperately through much of this year. (That top shot is from Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, about 50 miles from Taos.) And if you’ve never heard a raven before, here, listen. They most definitely do not caw.

Excerpt from Book Two

It occurred to me that I could actually share what I’m working on for NaNoWriMo. As I mentioned, this is the second book of To Tune the Beast (title undecided) and yes you’re at a disadvantage reading this excerpt unless you’ve critiqued/edited parts of the first book (which is about 3/4 finished). But it’s still a good glimpse, and if nothing else, proof that I really am writing — just not here!

“Cub,” the old man says in a distant tone, beckoning me to his side at the window with an air of disbelief. “We have company.”

What I see through the glass makes me gasp, wild hope pounding in my chest. It is Perfidy racing down the road toward us with all the velocity of the day he and Chalcy delivered our commission from Garanat. But today, to my instant dismay, the joffy is riderless.

In a cold sweat, I bolt out the door and find Fortune, inescapably curious, already waiting to greet our visitor. Perfidy slows and gives the cobalt joffy one of his long stretching bows, which she finds more amusing than I do.

“What’s happened? Is she alright? What are you doing here?”

Perfidy’s admonishing “Tsk, tsk” is followed by a grin. One does not interrogate a joffy with any serious expectation of answers. But this time, I’m obliged.

“Be at ease. Beloved is perfectly safe. Not particularly happy, but safe. And as for me, I am here partly at her request, but mostly on my own initiative. I’m going with you.”

“With me.” I study him skeptically, then point toward the mountains. “Up there?”

“Of course. Were you planning to walk?”

My head is starting to throb again. “I don’t know. I suppose I was going to ride the bike as far as I could; I can’t imagine Fortune parting that long from the Master. Honestly I really haven’t much of a plan just yet. Beyond the fact that Voro Martel has agreed to go with me as well.”

I use the pseudonym more out of habit than dishonesty. And I have no idea if Tsavor Marl’s fame (or infamy) even extends beyond the Tuners’ Guild. I’ll catch Perfidy up on the history whenever I get the opportunity.

“He travels by Horse, though. That will be awkward. She seems to be terrified of Fortune.”

“They’re among our contracted prey,” Perfidy acknowledges, a little wistfully. “But you have my word that she’ll be safe from me. Consider that part of our personal Contract, Half-Raven.”

It hurts, exquisitely, to hear a name that wouldn’t exist without her. Tears prick my eyes. I push us on.

“Yes, what are the general terms of this temporary partnership? Traditionally, I would provide you food and shelter, but I can definitely guarantee you won’t receive what you’re accustomed to at the Keep.”

“Before Beloved, I was accustomed to far less.” He exchanges a meaningful glance with Fortune, whose head bobs in acknowledgement. “Shelter is where you find it. And I’m prepared to hunt for my sustenance. With one exception: cornbread. You make very good cornbread, so I will have a portion of all cornbread prepared on this expedition.”

The memory of the joffy’s enjoyment of the one thing I can reliably cook in this world takes some of the chill and the strangeness out of the morning. But cooking is one more aspect of the impending journey to which I have not given much thought, beyond the fact that the Master included it among Tsvaor Marl’s many hidden talents. I presume that these supplies are among the ones the man is busy gathering at this moment.

“Fair enough,” I say. “What else?”

“Nothing more. Oh, except the binding.”

This does not sound to me like something which could be easily confused with nothing more. I am doubly wary when Fortune chooses this moment to return to the shade of her shelter. Her golden eyes gleam at me from within the shadows.

“Binding.”

“Yes. Partners must be bound, regardless of the duration of the physical association. I’m afraid the connection is permanent, until another partnership, another binding, replaces it. It will be interesting; I’ve never been bound to two humans before. Beloved is quite excited for it, because theoretically, it will create a bridge. No guarantees on that; I did not want to bring it before the Collective. She gave me a message for you, in case we’re mistaken, but she’s hopeful that she can communicate it to you directly. Now would not be the ideal time for that, though; you should wait until noon, when Garanat is sleeping.”

Longing seizes me, shoves all misgiving out of my head, erases the dark foreboding of the connection is permanent. What wouldn’t I sacrifice for this bridge? The prospect of having her near – as near as we’ve ever been Alterside.

“What must I do, to bond with you?”

Perfidy’s smile is a waxing, serrated crescent moon.

“Bleed,” he replies. “Your blood and mine must mingle. But it needn’t be dramatic. I bite you, and myself, and the wounds… communicate.”

“As simple as that.”

I study the joffy’s fangs with a detail I’ve never had cause to before. They seem to sharpen in response. I shrug my left arm out of my coat. Roll up the sleeve to bare my forearm. Treated properly with ash, this could add to my pattern of penalty scars – or begin a new one. The idea excites me, the unpredictability of the marks. The anticipation of an as-yet unexperienced pain. Perfidy’s amusement is edged with curiosity as he considers my goose-pimpled flesh.

“Beloved was not so eager for this part,” he remarks, spurring a new thought.

“Where did you bite her?”

“There, but on her other arm.”

Of course she too would choose her non-dominant side. I’m pleased with this symmetry.

“That’s perfect then,” I say. “Do it.”

It happens startlingly fast, too fast to properly experience the sensation. My heart hammers all the way up into my throat, echoing in my ears, as I reel with the primal shock of attack. A breathless moment that I know intimately – that’s almost come to define me – hangs between the blossoming of my blood and the eruption of pain. Perfidy takes only a beat to acknowledge it before sinking his teeth into his own shoulder.

“Now,” he growls through crimson teeth, and I jump to obey. The wound is difficult to see in the blackness of his coat, but I press my arm hard against the place where his blood gleams like ink. The little spines of his pelt make a delicate chord – Na Minor… no, Minor Sixth – as they rub painfully against my broken skin.

I have no expectations for this binding. I open myself to anything. And what fills me… is everything.

Running, racing. All landscape blurred, suborned to movement, to speed. I am the wind, wild and sharp and laughing, devouring the earth under my paws. Music spills from the sky like rain – Chalcy’s music, hard and loud and alive. Chasing, blind with hunger. Lust. Tasting her spice and honey. Plunging my teeth through fur and hide and muscle and splintering bone. The rush of hot copper in my mouth. The free-fall of orgasm. Diving into water, washing off blood, shaking stars from my pelt. Her, the moon and sun above me. Her, threading through my hair, Perfidy’s coat, our limbs, like roots, grounding us, growing through us. Her, everywhere.

“It’s done. Master Kalekai, your timing is excellent. She’s about to faint.”

“No,” I say – or I think I do. My tongue is a ball of yarn.

My vision swims. My whole body trembles, like some newly born creature. I’m falling, very slowly, and the Master’s warm, strong arms gather me – like a feather mattress rising up to meet me.

“It’s all right, cub,” I hear him say. “Everyone does.”

I should note that my cat, Claudio, has inspired quite a bit about Perfidy, including his passion for cornbread. Sadly, I lost the video I once had of him demolishing a cornbread muffin. Guess I’ll have to bake some more and share the proof later. Anyway, it’s pretty much inevitable that he’ll work himself in anywhere he can…

The Midnight Sun / As the World Burns

I’m pleased to share that my poem “The Midnight Sun” was published in the Indie Blu(e) Publishing anthology As the World Burns: Writers and Artists Reflect on a World Gone Mad. Thanks to those of you who provided valuable feedback for the final draft. It’s wonderful to see many of your works in this collection! (For a full list with links to the authors, see The Feathered Sleep’s comprehensive post here.) This is the first poem I’ve had published in print since I was sixteen, so I’m grateful to my sister from another mother, Candice, for inviting me to submit something at a time when disability, and just the daily trauma of living through this era, so often gets in the way of my creativity. It is a tremendous collection, and I hope you purchase a copy, particularly if you support the Black Lives Matter movement (50% of the royalties, once they reach their break-even point, will go to BLM-centered organizations).

It has been an interesting time since my last post of substance. A few weeks ago, in preparation for a likely decision to retire with disability in April rather than being laid off from my job May 1 (a stay of execution from the original date of Jan. 31), I went through a neuropsychological evaluation for the first time. (Sidenote: the tests totaled more than $4,000 in my case; if you ever need one of these, you might want to make sure your insurance will cover it before you go. I have yet to see the final bill.) The results, which I was given immediately, revealed one surprise and one thing I knew already — which was largely responsible for my plan to retire.

The surprise was that my memory is better than I thought; in remembering lists of words, recall was apparently off the charts. I scored lower, though, on my ability to come up with words on my own, and that was telling. But my complex problem solving ability, especially when fatigued (and I was plenty fatigued after the second hour) was well below average — or average for me, as the neuropsychologist explained. The ultimate conclusion was that if I could manage my fatigue, and my quality of sleep, and my depression, I might do better at work, for as long as I need to, but all in all I’m in pretty classic company with all the other MSers out there who leave the workforce because of cognitive dysfunction.

So here I am on my second week of Amantadine. I think it’s working, but not to manage the symptom it’s supposed to. Oddly, for an anti-fatigue medicine, it’s improving my sleep. (In fact, one of its more hilarious/terrifying potential side effects appears to be falling asleep suddenly, in the midst of any activity.) I usually can’t get through a night without waking up after a few hours and my brain going into panic overdrive, but with the exception of one rough night after an especially brutal day, I’ve actually been sleeping soundly. So, one piece of the puzzle at least is in place. The rest, I guess we keep working on.

Hopefully I’ll be able to shake some new poetry out of my brain to post here in the coming weeks. I’m also doing #NaNoWriMo this month, trying to bang out as much as possible out of the sequel to “The Beast” before finishing Book 1 this winter. (If they are in fact two books; that remains to be seen.) I hope you are all keeping sane, and healthy, and celebrating every little triumph of reason and love over madness and intolerance that the world delivers.

Short Story: “Jackie Wilson Said”

I am still not in a state to post new creative things or even (some days) full sentences. But I’m seeing and thinking of Bear R. Humphreys, Kerfe & Nina @memadtoo, Marcy Erb, Pleasant Street, Sarah Potter (! how did I miss finding you again?), Quiall/Butterfly Sand (! same question?), Robert Okaji, Sister Madly, The Feathered Sleep, and trE/A Cornered Gurl as I reblog this cautionary short story from the mother site posted about this time in 2016.

Graciously, this dystopia passes us by… until the next time. Tonight, my friends, be joyous. We’ll be vigilant on the morrow.

The Fairy of Disenchantment

It started before all the social media went to 12-hour ‘fresh feeds’, but I know it’s important somehow, that change.  Every post, every chat, then every text on our phones gone overnight.  It was liberating, at first, not to be burdened by all the stupid things you said the day before.  Our lives felt streamlined, purified.  But I want you to try to remember when it really started to change, when you could no longer be sure of what was said, or what was even true anymore? You can’t, can you, sis? If you could recall, could you trace it to any one day, one event, the act of one individual? I don’t think so. Remember that day I texted you about the farmer’s market and my clumsy attempt at ‘asparagus’ autocorrected to ‘spearheads’? This goes deep.

I’m afraid to ask you questions, Nina, even in a letter. You’ve noticed…

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It was her, all along

The plant that is growing over the Elsewhere Throne has been known to me now for some time: Rhus typhina, the Staghorn (or Velvet) Sumac. When I was close enough to the naked branches this spring, it was clear to me how it came by both its Latin and English common names, evoking the velvet of deer antlers. Now, with autumn in full swing in my neighborhood, I look hopefully for a few buds that will flower into those classic Dr. Seussian crimson clusters.

Perhaps you are rushing things, Jian Qing.

“Yes,” I say, admiring the play of light over the subtly reddening leaves, “perhaps I am rushing…”

My mouth snaps closed. I peer sharply through the dappled shadows concealing the abandoned chair’s tattered seat. Jian Qing (簡晴) is my Chinese name, given to me by a Taiwanese friend almost thirty years ago when I was a Linguistics major studying Mandarin. (The characters mean Simplicity and Clarity.) It is also a name I have heard spoken by only one person in the last few years… and she is not mortal. The forms of Disenchantment are myriad, but I have often seen her take no shape at all but sunshine. Few things, for an alter ego, would be more suitable.

“Jing Huan Xian?”

Oh! So formal… Disenchantment smiles in her incorporeal way, a brightening that I feel down to my marrow. It takes a great deal of self-restraint not to hurl myself into the chair and immerse myself in that long-lost warmth and light. I don’t want to crush the sumac.

“D. you are killing me. Have you been here all along?”

Theoretically. You, on the other hand, have been elsewhere for a long time.

“I’ve been dead, D. I died — the last time — in February of 2019, was reborn as someone I’m not, and now they’re going to kill me again on January 31, with a stake through the heart this time, and you know what? I am actually elated about it. Terrified, but elated. I’ve been having a lot of conversations.”

I know, the Fairy of Disenchantment replies quietly. Are you okay talking to me in the middle of the sidewalk, or should we go home?

Laughing, I turn on my heel and head back up the hill to my house. I have Angélique Kidjo’s version of the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light still playing on my headphones: Tin guidi guidi guidi tingui tingui, Zo yéli yéliShe is only partly human being… She describes the possibilities… The light follows me up the hill.

I have indeed been talking to a lot of people lately, most helpfully at my local Aging and Disability Resource Center. There are a few missing pieces of data from my employer’s benefits office, but the way I’m seeing things now, going on disability is actually looking like a viable possibility.

It seems like a perfect time for a certain someone to come back into my life. You will find that other blog here: The Fairy of Disenchantment (Apologies for all the missing image links; I’m slowly working on replacing everything lost in the WordPress export…)