These men of desire – or do they not yet exist? – are like Zarathustra. They know incredible sufferings, vertigos, and sicknesses. They have their spectres. They must reinvent each gesture. But such a man produces himself as a free-man, irresponsible, solitary, joyous, finally able to say and do something simple in his own name, without asking permission; a desire lacking nothing, a flux that overcomes barriers and codes, a name that no longer designates any ego whatever.
He has simply ceased being afraid of becoming mad. He experiences and lives himself as the sublime sickness that will no longer affect him. — Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia”
There are the three crows. They have been with me for years, sometimes in my dreams, sometimes on the edge of vision between sleep and waking.
But they are also there just off my balcony, playing guard over the parking lot, waiting for the peanuts they know I’ll toss for them. The food leaves my hand, scatter-shot across the asphalt, and just as I throw one crow leaves its perch, bolting direct, following the trajectory of the nuts. The second and third wait a few moments, scanning. No other birds coming and they pounce; a seagull passing evokes a warning call..
They’ve been with me for years now. They are not always the same, but there are always three. They haunt my dreams, the deaths of the people they know I know echoing into my rituals. The first died, cut through the chest, her blood slickening the cobbles of the coal-dust covered city. She tried and failed, and no one marked her death. The second is much, much older, though died younger than she. I cannot tell you about the third one.
They wing and wheel before me each morning. I sip my tea shirtless, regardless the weather. Just as I light my first cigarette, I hear one caw. They are hungry; they are waiting. I draw from the cigarette, sip some tea, and gift them the food.
One day, they were not there, and I wasn’t surprised. I’d had an awkward conversation with a few gods. I thought they’d be angry, because many people I trusted had been saying that gods are VERY serious, and you must do everything they ask.
Though none of the gods I knew were like that; I for a little while believed them.
“I can’t do this alone.” I said. I wanted to say, “I refuse to do this alone,” but they knew, and I knew, that I didn’t mean that. So I said, “the dead are too much right now, and I am alone, and I’m doing all this stuff for you, but I’m breaking because I’m alone and I can’t do this anymore,” I said this aloud, and prepared for the repercussions.
And the next morning, the three crows were not there, and I was not surprised.
I’d never gotten to feed scrubjays. They are much more rare in Seattle, seclusive. They don’t rook together like the crows. They are not nearly as social. But there they are.
It’s morning; I’m groggy; I’ve got a handful of peanuts and there are three scrubjays where the three crows should be.
I shake my head and laugh. When I told the gods “I can’t,” I’d heard laughter and a voice that sounded like three goddesses.
“We know. We’re glad you finally admitted it to yourself.”
So I fed the three scrubjays and almost forget my cup of tea.
Around that time, I almost kicked my altar into pieces.
So many dead whispering to me. So many failed revolutions. Marx kept trying to tell me something, and so I moved his gravedirt off the altar for a little while. That didn’t help.
I’d wake up feeling I’d been haunted, dreamt of having haunted other people’s dreams. I’d wake up cold, and now that I didn’t see the crows. I could understand nothing. Nothing others said made sense; nothing others suggested helped.
What the priests told me of the gods didn’t make sense anymore, but the gods didn’t seem to care whether I believed the right thing or wrong thing. And worst of all, they didn’t seem to care that I had said no to them. They seemed to have actually appreciated it.
But that didn’t make anything better at all. That made it worse. I was still alone, surrounded by the dead, and I almost smashed my altar into pieces.
I can help.
All I saw was black and silver. Moonlight through bare winter branches as I lay there on the floor, crying, haunted by the dead.
I can help, he said, as the black and siliver light branched across my skin. I can take this away for a bit.
“Okay,” I shouted, noticing the branches weren’t of trees at all, but antlers.
I met my friend at a bar that night. There was no panic in my soul; I’d stopped shaking. I didn’t hear the dead anymore.
Something had snapped. Like a broken bone broken again to be reset, like the crack of cartilage in the back which releases the muscle spasm, something had snapped. But I didn’t feel pain, only suspension.
My friend noted the change. I felt feral, wild, coursing with more power than I’d ever known, worried I’d break someone else with my jaws. I told him a story that I’d forgotten forever.
My father beat me severely when I was young, and often. And, he sent me to bed without dinner often. And dinner in our shack in Appalachia was usually toast with margarine, or noodles with margarine, or sometimes hot dogs. Hot dogs were dinner that night, but I didn’t get any because I was beaten and punished.
But my mother snuck a hot dog into my room. It was raw and cold. She couldn’t cook it without my father knowing. She snuck it in my room and handed it to me fearfully, and left quickly.
“They fed me uncooked scraps of meat like I was a dog,” I barked to my friend at the bar, and he nodded.
Before that night, I’d been having dreams of a black dog nipping at my ankles, trying to pull me out of danger. I never dream of dogs. And these weren’t only dreams. I was on the phone with someone and, for a moment, thought I saw the black dog trying to tug my pant leg. I shook my head and the dog wasn’t there, but I’d become so accustomed to such visions that I didn’t freak out.
“Cwn Annwn,” I’d thought to myself. That should mean my death, right? I shrugged. I’d never talked to Gwyn Ap Nudd before. Maybe he was trying to get my attention, I didn’t know.
It was him, the black and silver light, moon through branches, antlers. “I can take that away for a bit. And you know what that means.”
And I’d said okay.
I trudged home from meeting my friend through a pouring, cold rain. The chill felt strange, new, like I was part again of the rain, and there was someone in the rain I knew.
A line from a poem wouldn’t leave my mind. I couldn’t stop repeating it to myself, staring out into the chill, wet flood.
“When you hunt for souls in the winter rain…”
“Hey, Gwyn,” I said, a bit drunk. “I–uh, I lost part of my soul somewhere out there. You’re a hunter of souls, right? And so, uh, hey. If you find my missing soul out there, could you tell it to come home?”
I laughed to myself, grateful no one would ever know how I actually talk to gods.
16 years ago I met my next door neighbour, an attractive, young writer. He seemed pretty awesome, and I was maybe a slight bit envious. I wanted to be a writer one day, and this guy was already a writer at 24. Still, he was nice, and I more admired him than anything else. I told myself that one day I would be like him, a writer.
And then I met his boyfriend. Friendly, charming, gorgeous. A muscular, kind, really attractive Tlingit man, smart but also a club kid. I crushed a bit, then remembered how much I admired the writer whose boyfriend he was. So I amended my fantasy. One day I would be a writer, and would have a boyfriend like his.
Three nights after that awkward conversation with Gwyn ap Nudd, I got a message.
“Hey. It’s raining pretty hard, and I’m stranded and soaked. Can I crash at your place tonight?”
I said yes, of course. It was really cold that night, pouring. Also, I could use the company. I had been feeling alone for awhile, and I felt a bit emotionally fragile with all the weird god-shit happening. And I was thinking of Brighid. I usually think of her whenever someone is stranded and needs a place to crash.
Besides, I hadn’t seen him for a long time, and something wet came padding in with him, out of the rain.
Four days later, I’m making him dinner, staring into a black iron pot. I’m trying to distract myself while he’s standing behind me. It feels hilarious how awkward I am. What we’re talking about particularly, I don’t remember. I’m trying to lose myself in the cooking, because I don’t want to admit what I’m thinking.
For a second, I glimpse an image of me, some witch dropping herbs into a cauldron. I’m not making pasta sauce from scratch, I’m trying to brew some potion to make myself courageous enough to tell him what I didn’t tell him 16 years ago.
I don’t turn. I stare at the sauteing garlic. “I had a crush on you back then, you know.”
“I felt the same way then,” he said.
I add the tomatoes and stir. And still without turning, I blurt out, “I still do.”
“Me, too.” he said.
A week later, the poet who’d written the lines about Gwyn Ap Nudd wrote a piece about the Cwn Annwn. I’d not felt the black dog for awhile, but now anything about the god who hunted souls in the winter rains felt more important than ever.
I’d felt very much myself, but also disconnected. I felt like some part of me was elsewhere. No. I knew some part of me was elsewhere. Woven into the myths of many Welsh gods of Annwn is a certain trading. Pwyll spends time in Annwn for Arawn, Bran comes back to fight for Arawn. And the hounds of Gwyn ap Nudd?
“I had a dream about you,” said a text a few minutes after I read that essay. It was from my friend Jes.“You were eating bones.”
I laughed. I almost said, “I know.” But instead, I asked, “Did I look content or distant?”
“More than content. Happy,” she replied. “Gnawing out the marrow, etc.”
I told her where I was. “I come back on Imbolc,” I said.
When I was young, I was fed scraps like a dog.
I learned to cower and be afraid. I learned that you only get when you deserve.
I learned parents punish you when you have not done the right thing, or not enough of the right thing.
I mistook what I learned from my parents for a truth about the world.
But the world does not withdraw from you when you say no.
Neither do the gods, especially when you’ve learned to eat the bones of the dead.
Imbolc, I leave the side of my lover next to me in bed. I climb down the ladder and brew my tea.
I make it strong that morning. I didn’t need more caffeine, just wanted the taste to overwhelm a bit. I added milk, a bit more sugar than usual, and stepped outside.
The cold morning felt good on the bare skin of my chest. The hot tea in my hands felt just as good.
I lit a cigarette and heard the crows caw.
“Yay! You’re back,” I shouted. I grabbed the peanuts that I’d been feeding the scrubjays with while the crows had been gone and started to toss them. I noticed–the jays were there, too.
“Wait, six of you now?”
And I laughed.
And I bought more peanuts.
* * *
This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.