An Irish folk tale, Maid of Mullaghmore and memories of Muckross Head, county Donegal

I once spent about a week hanging out with Caoimhin Mac Aoidh, noted Donegal fiddler and historian, particularly on all things Donegal fiddle.

He wrote about the tune Maighdean Mhara Mhullach Mhoir, or The Maid or more precise, The Mermaid of Mullaghmore.

I was driving up the coast of Donegal, on the way to the village of Teelin, which eventually we named our kid after. It was that kind of a trip, and I became quite familiar with the stretch of road between Killybegs, Kilcar and Teelin. The soundtrack for most of the trip was solo fiddle playing, by the Donegal masters. This was the tune that was playing when I finally decided to make a turn for the beach at Muckross Head, in hopes of catching the storm coming in.
It’s not the bay in question for the tune, though the captain of the fishing boat in the story was based in Teelin. But you still got a feel for what the ocean is like there, up close and personal. You can watch the riptides dance across the water, see the waves crashing into the rocks fifteen, twenty feet in the air. It’s not a very hospitable stretch of water to be in peril on.
This fishing captain in the tale kept hearing the song of a mermaid, and became enchanted. She was enamored with him as well, and despite the obvious difficulties in their anatomies, they pledged their love.
The mermaid told her father, who recognized true love at once. He knew she’d never be happy with life on the sea when she loved a mortal man from the shore. So he did what all loving fathers would do.
He decided the kill captain.
One afternoon as the captain was in the bay fishing, the mermaid’s father called up a great storm. The small boat was tossed this way and that. Some of the crew went overboard and the craft began to come apart.
The night before, the captain and the mermaid had secretly married each other. She had a premonition of danger, and had given her new husband a magic dagger. He was to use as his final hope on the sea, when all appeared to be lost.
The mermaid felt the sea rising with the storm. She went to her father who was nowhere to be found. So she set out for the bay to find her love and keep him safe.
When it was obvious all was lost, the desperate captain threw the dagger into sea, but held out little hope that it would work.
And yet it did. The sea calmed, and the captain turned his boat to the shore. As he did, he saw floating in the water, the body of his love, his dagger in her breast.
He never went to sea again.

Why do lovers leap? Native American myths and a lookout from Rock City, high above Chattanooga, Tennessee

Mark Twain wrote in the nineteenth century that there were fifty locations along the Mississippi River that claimed the title of lover’s leap. In fact, they are spread out not only across this country, but others as well. Nobody knows where, or even if there was a place where this legend springs from, a single source that inspired the memory that named the rest.

The legend is eerily similar across the country, usually involving native Americans, star crossed love, and either a leap to join a lover who has been lost to death or other circumstances, or a leap together to avoid separation. Even the native Americans it seems had a gothic heart.

Lover’s leap atop Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga is no exception. A Chickasaw warrior named Sautee loved a beautiful Cherokee maiden named Nacoochee. Their two tribes were at war, and the two lovers were found out. The Cherokees sent out a raiding party which captured Sautee and hauled him to the ledge atop Lookout Mountain and threw him off to his death. While they were celebrating their deed, Nacoochee slipped unnoticed to the edge of the cliff. Her family couldn’t reach her in time, and the last word she spoke before leaping to her doom was “Sautee.”

It’s possible that there is an element of truth to this story, for there are two nearly lost towns in the valley below which bear the names Sautee and Nacoochee, whose histories stretch back farther than the Tennessee theme park.

My own guess is that for as long as there have been lovers, love has been seen as a leap. You’re putting the ultimate trust into another person, despite all the odds. You have to mean it, and be willing to hold onto that trust even in the face of loss. It’s a leap of faith, and if done with a pure heart, there is no turning back. For far too many, when love is lost, it’s better to seek oblivion than to carry on.

My own favorite tale of a lover’s leap is from another place altogether, where the young brave was simply not in his love’s class, and had brought shame to her and her family. He leapt, but the breeze lifted him and carried him back to his lover’s arms, for in the end, love recognizes no class, no status. It simply is, in life and in death. Even the wind knows that and sometimes carries us back to where we belong.

Traveling back in time to explore the hauntings in Parsonage Woods, and the ghosts of Castle Combe

If you’re looking for the picture book English village, it’s hard to find better, at least in Wiltshire. Lacock is a bit more refined, with about twice the traffic from what I’ve seen. Then again, I’ve never been to Castle Combe in the summer. It was a winter stop. Technically we were there for a walk through Parsonage Woods, above the village.

But as my guide drove us through the narrow street I was gobsmacked. It was not only gorgeous, but nearly empty. Lacock, that same week had been more or less teeming. But we almost had the place to ourselves. If I had my way, we’d still be there. With no new buildings added since the 17th century, this is the town time forgot.

The History of the Manor and Ancient Barony of Castle Combe in the County of Wilts, by none other than G. Poulett Scrope Esq. MP and published in 1852, describes the village this way … “It lies deeply embosomed among steep, and generally wooded, slopes, in an angle of one of those narrow cleft-like valleys that intersect and drain the flat-topped range of limestone-hills called in Gloucestershire the Cotswolds, and which extend southwards across the N.E. corner of Wiltshire as far as Bath. A small but rapid stream (The Bybrook) runs through the village, and, after a course of some miles, joins the Avon near the town of Box.

Crossing the Bybrook into Castle Combe. A ghostly miller is sometimes seen hurrying home to the millers’ cottages to the right.

“The position here described gave occasion to the name of Combe, by which in the Saxon era, and for some time afterwards, the place was alone designated. The prefix was subsequently added from “the Castle,” the meagre remains of which still crown the extremity of a hill about a quarter of a mile west of the town; but which, when entire, must have proudly overlooked the combe, or narrow valley, where the church and the principal part of the village are built. In the centre of the latter, and close to the church, stands the ancient market-cross, designating the market-place, from whence the three main streets of the village diverge. The houses which compose it, built of the rubbly limestone of the surrounding hills, generally retain the gable-fronts, labelled and mullioned windows, and often the wide stone-arched, fireplaces, characteristic of ancient English architecture.”

William of Worcester wrote of the Combe in the fifteenth century “In the said manor are two towns, one called Over Combe, in which reside the yeomen, who are occupied in the culture and working of the land which lies upon the hill, and the other called Nether Combe, in which dwell the men who use to make cloth, such as weavers, fullers, dyers, and other tradesmen.”

Weaving as a craft soon was overtaken by the factory, and the early boom of Castle Combe died away, leaving it isolated and alone for the next few centuries, and its unique geography kept the town from developing urban sprawl of any sort.

The hike up to Parsonage Woods from Castle Combe

The Romans had a villa here up to the fifth century, seven centuries before the castle of its name came into existence. We started up the path of one of those “deeply embosomed among steep, and generally wooded, slopes,”  G. Poulett Scrope Esq. spoke of. Not the steepest, nor the longest hike, but sensible shoes is recommended. At the top of the hill there was little doubt which direction to go, as forward took you into farmland above the village. To the right the woods beckoned.

As woods go, Parsonage Wood is rather nondescript. The trail skirts the rim of the high ground above the village 50 meters below, with some really picturesque views of the church and other buildings. But it’s not the views which attract ghost hunters, but the sounds.

Some say it’s a raid by Vikings reenacted from time to time, or a battle between the Vikings and the Danes, though there is no record of any battles or raid that I know of at Castle Combe. Others say devil worshippers, or perhaps ancient pagan ceremonies, maybe Roman?

View of St. Andrews Church in Castle Combe, from Parsonage Woods. The medieval clock still sounds out the hour, and hearing from here is timeless.

At any rate what people report tends to be voices, sometimes talking away when you’re talking, but when you stop, they do as well. The skeptic of course would say echoes. Others report the voices continue, coming from all directions, almost a chant, in conjunction with someone moaning until a scream pierces the night.

That would be hard to confuse with echoes.

It is said that anyone who has witnessed this never ventures into Parsonage Woods again. That could be true, but I’ve yet to hear or even read of anyone who has personally experienced this. Is this a location where you can imagine it, where a walk along the ridge would capture that kind of eerie mood? Oh absolutely. You may be in Wiltshire, but with a even a hint of imagination, with the stone village below it could be Sherwood Forest, or any mysterious forest you’ve ever imagined. The big bad wolf could be just head, or the witch’s cottage. It’s archetypal in its beauty and mystery. Totally enchanted.

It’s said that disembodied voices can be heard at night in Parsonage Woods, chanting and moaning only brought to order by a piercing scream in the darkness.

The path eventually descends, grazing land for sheep and soon you hear the Bybrook babbling away. The trail leads to a bridge, stone of course and obviously old. But only the keen eye, or one who has read tourist info for Castle Combe realize it’s possibly Roman in origin, originally for pack animals to cross.

Here it is said that you might find Castle Combe’s most famous ghost, that of a Roman centurion standing guard, left behind when the legions abandoned Britain. Once again it’s easy to imagine, and I had to look twice when I saw the black cloaked figure walking down the road beyond the bridge in my photos. Till I realized it was only my guide, going ahead with the dogs. The imagination can play tricks on our in a place like this. Even the present looks like the past and at times, you are the only thing from the modern era in view.

Roman Bridge with swans over the Bybrook. A roman centurion is sometimes seen guarding the bridge, dating from the days when Castle Combe was the site of a Roman Villa.

When the imagination is in focus, you can see just about anything. And that’s the beauty of a place like Castle Combe.

We began the walk into the village, past the cottages on the outskirts, across the Bywater at the bridge with the millers cottages beyond. The miller himself has been seen scurrying home, decked in white as was the miller’s costume in the past. But the only person we saw was a young goth chick stepping out into the sunlight, looking not at all out of place in this gothic surrounding. Indeed, Transylvanian peasants from a Hammer horror film wouldn’t have looked out of place, nor the count as well.

Indeed, the 2010 film The Wolfman was filmed in part here. The original Dr. Doolittle was as well, and portions of The War Horse. The village can be the setting for any number of ideas, fantasies and flights of imagination, because it is so perfect.

The Street in Castle Combe, towards the market cross. With all the building being built prior to the 17th century, the medieval feel is still intact.

It’s compact, the smallness of the place is nothing like you’ve ever felt here in the states. Sure, in New England some of the houses are crammed together in a place like Provincetown on Cape Cod. But those buildings are wood, temporary even if a century or two old. The stone of the cottages matches the landscape so perfectly, it feels as though they’ve grown up there, needing only to be assembled.

St. Andrew’s Church, across from the ancient market cross is another marvel, with parts dating to the 1200’s, and tower finished just a couple centuries later. Appropriately enough, a few centuries back all but the tower was disassembled and put back together according to the original plan.

St. Andrews church in Castle Combe dates in part to the 1200’s, and still has a working, medieval era clock in the tower.

In the graveyard adjacent, a young wan, pale young girl has been seen wandering, silent. The sound of the medieval clock still booms overheard, and I was curious when I realized there was no clock face on the tower. I was told that knowing any more than the hour was superfluous, as nobody had watches to keep track of the minutes. People marked time only down to the hour, and the clock bell ringing out would have been heard throughout the valley and beyond.

The shadow of a wan girl is believed to haunt the Churchyard of St. Andrews, Castle Combe, Wiltshire, UK.

Perhaps it’s that connection with time that draws the young lady to the graveyard, the miller to his home, and sets in motion the strange events on Parsonage Hill. Or perhaps it’s only that ancient sound which awakens something timeless in us, that lets the present melt away.

Or maybe it was my strange mood. It was my last day England, my last day with my newfound love. Tomorrow would mean goodbye and a tortuous flight back to the states and nothingness, to a place devoid of imagination, a place lacking the scent of yew burning in the fireplace, where the waft of smoke rises up above the tops of trees on Parsonage Woods. How can a person not want to live in a place where Romans once walked, where high above you on the hill stood the castle, where you need only know the hour, and be free to ignore the minutes of time.

More images from Castle Combe

All images and more can be purchased from the Wytchery by clicking here …

Castle Combe, Wiltshire, Great Britain
Castle Combe, Wiltshire, Great Britain
Castle Combe, Wiltshire, Great Britain
Castle Combe, Wiltshire, Great Britain
Near Castle Combe, Wiltshire, Great Britain
Castle Combe, Wiltshire, Great Britain

 

True witch legends from southern Illinois … giving Carmi’s Cato the witch the last laugh on her neighbors, and an insight into folklore and history

Top: Wooden structure in the woods where the legend points to that Cato might have lived. Dating from much later than Cato’s time, this building was likely used for livestock, but it does sit on a mound which could have once been the site of a house.

+ + +

There’s a difference between folklore out here in the prairies of the United States, than say, the folklore of Britain.

When people starting collecting the unwritten tales of small rural communities across Britain and Europe in the 19th century, our ancestors were just getting here, bringing their folklore with them.

There was no folklore to collect, and that which was being made was simply current events.

One of the common traits of folklore is that elements of the stories are often interchangeable, including the people and places involved. The big bad wolf that prowled the watering hole back in Britain didn’t come over with the family. But the stories parents would tell their children so they’d stay away from these danger spots did.

And so Black Annis in Scotland becomes Black Annie in Hawthorn Township, White county, Illinois.

While these stories were being compiled over in Europe, here in the backwaters nobody thought to write anything down. But with the rise of newspapers, some old timer’s memories got recorded.

Mound on which a house once stood, on the property owned by the family of Cato, the witch

I was sent one of these recollections about my hometown some years ago by Richard King, a friend, reference librarian and accordionist. He has a site on folklore from Knox county, Indiana (you can read his article on Cato here, which I steal liberally from). It involved Cato the witch, who lived above the Little Wabash river just south of town, Carmi, Illinois, sometime in the 19th century.

The tale as he records it, is taken from 1889 newspapers. It was the recollection of someone who appeared to have actually known Cato. From the article:

“The old man told the Carmi newsman that two miles south of Carmi near the Indian shoals, weird sounds used to be heard coming from the rocks that rise from the opposite river bank. There at the time, the man said, could be seen the remains of an old house. When he was a boy it was “occupied by a browned and wrinkled crone of perhaps 83 years. Her maiden name was Cato. She was known as ‘Cato the Witch.'”

The old story teller said from the earliest time he knew Cato, she was a firm believer in ghosts. He said she frequently claimed that she could see the forms of dead Indians, who came back to visit the mounds.

The ghosts also called on Cato’s kinfolks and hovered around her cabin in the twilight. According to the old story teller, the ghost brought messages from spiritland approving of the influence for good that she exercised over her credulous neighbors.”

Since he sent that I’ve held onto it, and occasional frequent that stretch of the river where the story points to as Cato’s home. The Little Wabash isn’t a big river by any stretch of the imagination. But when it floods, which is fairly often, much of that area is underwater. Only the high ground would be safe for a cabin. Go a bit east and that area floods as well. Ditto to the west.

So choices for the location of her home was limited.

Indian Shoals proved problematic, as nobody could identify where it was, and it doesn’t show on any maps. I did find reference to it on a river survey, and from that deduced it was a bit to the east of the bridge I’d stop on and ponder the story.

The Little Wabash river, viewed from Possum Bridge. According to the story, Cato’s home would have been on the bank to the right, likely up near the top of the hills, close to the bend in the river.

But this was strange, for I had a friend who grew up in that area, and she said her father used to swear on misty mornings when he walked down close to the river, he could see the shapes of Indians in the mist. Which oddly echoed what Cato said.

As far as I know, the only mounds in this area are about ten miles away, and from the much earlier Hopewell Indians. There were native Americans here at the time that settlers arrived. But they were Shawnees, Piankeshaws and Potawatomis. There was some trouble with them early on, a few raids, a handful of scalpings, retribution and eventually forts were built for the settlers protection.

When the native Americans realized the settlers weren’t going to leave, they moved on. The white settlers of White county weren’t particularly tolerant of native Americans, so it’s unusual that Cato would claim them as an ally, even in spirit form. But if you take her at her word, and the spirits did come to visit the mounds, those wouldn’t be the Indians she was familiar with anyway, but from about 2,000 earlier.

Of course I wasn’t willing to take her at her word, because I didn’t really believe she existed. I’ve heard too many variations on this tale. Besides, it seemed set up for the supernatural punchline. Richard’s article continues “She had raised a large family of boys who took to the wild ways of the woods that surrounded them. Recognizing no law beyond their will, they became a set of idle, wandering vagabonds, and the old crone was left to die alone, so far as her immediate family was concerned.

“When the time of her dissolution was drawing near, and being informed by the neighbors that her magic powers had deserted her, and that death, the inevitable and inexorable, was approaching, she intimated a desire to make a will. Her wishes were complied with, and though the document was informal and could not be admitted to probate, the latter clause impressed itself upon those present, and her wish was literally complied with.

“It was as follows: ‘And, lastly, I desire that the lid of my coffin shall not be screwed down, and that my grave shall be only three feet deep from the surface, as I intend to appear before all my children and warn them of their evil ways.'”

“She was buried in a lonely spot which she has designated, near an unfrequented road, not far from the place where she had lived and died. It soon became deserted on account of the rumors of strange sounds and unearthly apparitions that greeted the ears and eyes of the belated travelers who happened to pass the place.”

“Her children, frightened by their mother’s prediction, fled, and but a few of her descendants are to be found in this country.”

The end of the tale was equally predictable, “… with the exception of the old gentleman who related the above and two or three others, there are none who can point out the lonely grave of ‘Old Cato, the Witch,’ but there can still be plucked from the grassy mound where her cabin stood a few bunches of catnip, wormwood, horehound and tansy and other herbs which she used in the performance of her miracles.”

I’ve told this story countless times around town, and nobody has heard of Cato, or even a witch in this area. Numerous Google searches came up with nothing but Richard’s article and one person who quoted from it. I asked the historical folks of the community and got the same blank stare Google gave me.

But I had a challenge to write a piece on folklore from where I live, and I decided it was time to tackle Cato. I expected it to be easy enough, since there was no truth to it. All I needed to do was quote Richard’s article, think up something intelligent to say about folklore that put it all perspective, and go take some pictures of the area I believed her house would have been.

I’m a hermit at the best of times, even more of late, having good reasons to want to hide from the world. But it was time to get out.

So it’s yesterday morning and I’m sitting here fortifying myself for the adventure ahead, and doing one last search. The hail Mary pass of something so broad you’ll get a trillion responses from Google. Which I did, simply the name Cato and Carmi. But somewhere in there, two words popped out … marriage record.

HOLDERBY, Robert. CATO, Nellie. 17 Mar 1818.

That’s when I remembered, the story said Cato was her maiden name, not given name. In an instant, Cato came to life. This was the only reference to any Cato I found in White county Illinois for over a hundred years.

Tansy, along with the other plants mentioned in the legend aren’t native to North America. Since these were the first European settlers in the area, it’s reasonable to assume a member of Cato’s family or immediate circle brought the plants with them, and passed the knowledge about how to use them down to her.

And she married into a family which during the 19th century and beyond, owned the strip of land I was on my way to photograph. That was an odd coincidence.  The Holderby family was one of the earliest in White county, and her husband was the last son of Jon Holderby, the German immigrant who first came here. Some of the family went on to make a name for themselves, but Robert and Nellie disappear after the 1840 census.

Nellie Holderby, the great niece of Nellie Cato. As her namesake, it puts Cato’s story in a different light, as it’s obvious she was loved, and not forgotten as many would think of a crone in the woods.

Yet it’s telling that one of Robert’s nephews named his daughter Nellie. It showed that Cato wasn’t necessarily someone who was feared. But also loved.

Which gave me a start later that day when the librarian at the genealogy library told me she had a photo of Nellie Holderby. I knew instantly this couldn’t be Nellie Cato, as the costume was far too modern.

She reminded me of my great grandmother, who lived in that same area at the same time as her niece. And in fact was related to the Holderbys.

I am in some distant way it turns out, related to Cato the witch.

One of the curious things I learned from hanging out with my grandparents, was how tight lipped they were about the family. “We don’t tell stories on each other,” I heard more than once. They were dead set against genealogy because you find skeletons that belong in the closet. My Granny Bert even took whiteout to the family Bible once.

But it suddenly occurred to me why Nellie and Robert disappeared. Not specifically, but my guess is it wasn’t something you talked about. It’s that simple.

My great grandmother is the one who told me the story of Black Annie, as well as other tales. She was a firm believer in things like witches, though not afraid of them. She’d giggle when she told a ghost story, or rather cackle as she was ancient when I knew her. But witches was different, matter of factual.

In the early days of Carmi, there wasn’t much in the way of doctors. You could find them in town, but further afield, you might be better off turning to someone who knew healing. It was quicker and cheaper. Also, it was somewhat less terrifying. My grandmother still hated doctors, “sawbones” she called them. The early days of frontier medicine could be brutal, and it was a long time before that changed.

But the healers of old, common in the rural parts of Europe tended towards herbalism. It may not work as often, nor as well, but you were left with all your limbs if you survived. Cunning women, wise women or just healer, they went by many names, and often, no names at all.

When your imagination is alive and in focus, it’s easy to see any wooden building in the forest as the cottage of the witch.

Cato appeared to tap into an earlier, old world strain of these healers, for by the 19th century claims to use magic, even in conjunction with herbs was actually more tightly enforced than during the era of the witch hunts. Her claim to receive help in her healing from the spirits of native Americans would have been severely punished by law in Britain at the time, whereas witchcraft itself was by then a minor crime.

Keep in mind, many of Cato’s neighbors would have been first generation Europeans. They knew the perceived evil and dangers, as well as lawlessness in what she was saying about her powers.

Also, the four plants mentioned, wormwood, tansy, horehound and catnip were all used by European healers. It wasn’t native American healing, as these plants aren’t native to North America, and only spread by settlement. Cato was the child of one of the first Europeans in this part of the country. So they had to bring these plants with them, and she would have been too young. It’s quite possible it was passed down to her from the previous generation, who knew what they needed for their trip west.

So obviously, if she had all four plants growing on the site of her cabin, she had to have planted them there.

All this points to the idea that Cato wasn’t an amateur, but had some knowledge of herbalism, and access to the plants. All the elements are there of a woman who if not carrying on a tradition, was familiar enough with it to create one of her own.

Witches, cunning women, even those accused of witchcraft were often found on the outskirts of town, in places others preferred not to live. They were often widows as well, and though I don’t know that Cato was a widow, there were a lot of ways for men to die in the 19th century, and no social safety net on the frontier to take care of their wives. It’s one reason many turned to herbalism, to help themselves survive with no man to help. Marriages were truly partnerships in those days, and when you lost a spouse, it wasn’t easy for someone who made their living on a farm to carry on. The land might not even go to the wife, but to the sons, or just as likely, the bank.

And a lady who claimed to talk to the spirits of Indians might not be someone a relative wanted to move into the house with them.

Since her husband’s family were fairly prominent by this time, it’s likely when she died near the end of the nineteenth century, if she had property, there would have been a will. If she didn’t have property, living close to the river made a lot of sense. That was the land nobody wanted.

+ + +

I headed out of town towards the area in question, and it was a beautiful day. Overcast, intermittent rain and chilly, with lovely leaves all around.

One of the early 20th century plat maps I found showed a house near where I believed her cabin to be, on property owned by her husband’s family. It wouldn’t have been visible from the river, and Cato’s house was supposed to have been long gone or in ruins by 1889.

When I got to the spot where the house was on the map, there was a mound and my heart raced a bit, remembering how Cato’s house was on a mound. There was a single tall tree growing atop it, and it was obvious a house had stood there. But it didn’t fit the story, so I decided skirt the mound and see what was between it and the river.

To the east are fields, stretching out parallel to the Little Wabash, which was hidden by trees. That was all flood plain down there, and yet I saw what clearly could have been mounds. Native American mounds here aren’t the tall pyramid shaped ones, but much lower. It’s nearly impossible to tell what is a mound and what is natural. It would have been hard in Cato’s day as well.

In the woods to the east, a gnarled, dead tree stood sentry, and I went towards it. The song Witchwood by the Strawbs came to mind looking at the tree. It’s strange how a single tree like that can change the whole tone of the woods. I stepped into a green and golden world, the fall foliage still holding on.

The mood was upon me and when that happens, the imagination opens up, along with your senses. You smell the place more keenly. You can hear a snap of a twig a hundred yards away, the echo of the hawks cry, or a crow’s warning.

I saw ahead of me another mound, and peeking out from the top of it above the bushes, a steeply pitched, moss covered roof. Hansel and Gretel had been this way I was certain. Now I knew Cato’s house was long gone, so I wasn’t really walking towards the witch’s cottage. But there was a part of me that just wouldn’t accept that. I’d felt this before, when I went up to spooky places as a child.

Most people forget that feeling, or choose to try, and don’t care to replicate it as adults. I’ve never suffered that. This is the feeling that folk tales are supposed to provoke. The realization that “no, what I fear can’t be true”, unless of course it is. Unless all the old tales are true, and Cato is about to step out from the shadows to greet me.

We are after all, kin, and it’s unlikely that many people stop by looking for her now.

But it wasn’t the witch’s cottage, but probably something meant for feeding or housing livestock, maybe a hundred years old or so. A part of the farm for the house which stood over there on the other mound.

A wide and deep ravine separates the area where I believe Cato lived from the Little Wabash River. This would have not only made for a safer place to live, but help avoid flooding.

Yet it’s also possible, that this was the mound where Cato’s house would have originally stood. The early settlers, like the native Americans before them, often took natural features and built them up. It was wooded now, but it’s been 150 years, give or take. It would have overlooked the mounds to the east as well which fit the tale.

I came down and out of the woods and crossed the field towards the river. There I met with the woods again and after about five or ten yards, found myself staring down into a deep gully, maybe forty foot deep, a bit deeper perhaps. Maybe thirty yards across to the other side, deeply wooded. Opposite me was the point I saw from the bridge where I guessed her house would have stood. But that was now very unlikely. During floods that place would have been an island, and there wasn’t much space for a house up there.

I turned go back, pretty much convinced that where the chicken coop was, was the most likely spot for Cato’s house.

I tripped, just for an instant and looked down. What I tripped over was a stone, a dressed stone, cut into a rough block. Not professional masonry, but obviously shaped by man. I saw the point of another stone jutting out from the ground. It turned out to be about two foot long, also cut, and looked quite like a step. I saw a few more laying around. From there to edge of the woods was about eight feet. Could this have been the foundations of Cato’s house?

Foundation stones found in the woods, far from where the house on the maps placed it. Could these be the stones from Cato’s home, on land nobody wanted?

To my right was a small mound, not big enough for a house, but the right size for a small cabin, for an odd old lady to live out her days. And that felt right. The rocks I’d tripped over might easily have slid down a bit due to erosion. Or have been tossed when clearing out the debris of her home.

The house that stood on the first mound might well have been where her and Robert lived, and when he departed for whatever reason, she moved back here, to the back of the property.

 

I started to go and remembered the other part of the quest. Cato’s grave. There’s a Holderby cemetery just down the road, but I was pretty sure she wasn’t there. I’d looked over a list of graves and neither her nor her husband were on it.

I recalled the story, “She was buried in a lonely spot which she has designated, near an unfrequented road, not far from the place where she had lived and died.

I looked at the road I stood on and remembered the maps. The road ended here in the 19th century. Once the house was gone that stood on this mound, there would have been no reason for anyone to come down that road. I looked behind me and saw the mounds, and figured this is likely the spot. In view of where she lived and died, in view of the mounds, and a lonely road to haunt. What more could a witch want?

I’m no empath, or particularly sensitive, or a medium in any way. But I couldn’t help but feel after finding the stones quite close by, that this was the spot where Cato’s home stood. It’s just theory, a but it feels right.

Immortality of course.

It’s all conjecture. It’s weaving a story based on a handful of facts and an equal amount of folklore.

But for me, that little old came back to life. I’m pretty certain she did live, and the story told by the old man in the article is likely not far off the truth. Just polished up a bit after frequent retellings, and with a dash of balderdash tossed in by Cato herself, to explain to the children how she did what she did.

Because by then, people no longer saw magic in what these old crones did. The knew about medicine, and they knew certain plants could heal, as well as harm. My family’s ancestors, living just up the road from Cato were already incorporating things into their daily lives which would have been witchcraft a century or two earlier. They were planting by the signs, choosing when to pull a tooth by the phases of the moon, and using folk magic for a variety of things. They just didn’t use the word magic anymore.

But to these kids, hearing Cato talk, she was talking to an audience who wanted to believe. Who saw her with the same awe that people used to see the healer, who wanted to be a little scared, to believe the mysteries of the world. Who wouldn’t want their own witch to visit as a child, especially if she made you feel loved and safe? I know I would have entertained the crap out of any kids who stopped by if I’d been in Cato’s shoes. It’s our nature to join that ritual.

View to the east, which could be natural hills and could be easily mistaken for Indian mounds. The only mounds known in the area are from the Hopewell culture, about 2,000 years ago. Though they would have been taller 150 years ago, it would still be impossible for settlers to tell what was a mound and what was a natural feature.

And perhaps that’s why she told him the tale. She knew her relatives wouldn’t tell stories on her. Maybe she wanted someone out there to pass the tale along. That little boy grew up to be an old man, still believing in what he saw, and he told her story, and it fell in my lap, a relative with no hesitation about telling stories on her, over a century later.

Having written all this down and reading it back, I can see the lunacy in my conclusions. I can also see that there are certain truths in it as well, and it’s impossible this far from the reality of the woman to separate the two.

Cato has been dead for almost one hundred and fifty years. Some time afterwards, she was forgotten by the community where she lived her whole life. An amazing life it had to be, whether she was a witch or just a woman. But once the belief in witches disappeared, Cato disappeared as well.

Today we view witchcraft somewhat differently, a more broad pantheon of beliefs. There’s a strong interest in the subject. And now, thanks to the fact that I do have some local readers who will have made it this far, and Google which will help me spin this tale on auto repeat for years to come, Cato is once more alive in the community where she lived, while her more “credulous” neighbors are long forgotten.

For you see, except for the die hards, history is kind of boring. Folklore has always been more fun, and why what people remember about history, is usually what they learned from storytellers and poets. Folklore brought to life. You simply can’t understand history by facts, you have to know what the people you study believed as well.

Hopefully Cato can still see out of the lid of her coffin to know she had the last laugh.

 

 

Old Sarum ley line with Salisbury Cathedral and Clearbury Ring, from Old Sarum’s ramparts

The Old Sarum Ley was identified by Sir Norman Lockyear, and runs from north of Stonehenge to the western bank of Frankenbury Camp, near Fordinbridge, Hampshire.

This photo was taken from Old Sarum, an Iron Age hill-fort, which became a Roman town, then Saxon and eventually a fortified castle and cathedral, once the residence of King  Henry I and subsequent Plantagenet monarchs. It was also used as a base of operation by William the Conqueror.

Also on this alignment is Salisbury Cathedral, thought to be the location of an ancient, blind spring, which is thought to attract a large number of flying insects and birds.

Aligned with the cathedral on the hilltop beyond is the wooded Clearbury Ring, an Iron Age hill fort in Wiltshire, 3 miles south of Salisbury city centre. It consists of a single bank and ditch, with a single entrance.

 

 

Christmas Card from Orpheus to Eurydice (last known address, Hades)

Top: Orpheus in Hades, Pierre Amedee Marcel Beronneau

Editor’s note: This is my website, so I get to do what I want. Occasionally I write fiction, though this was going to be a nice scholarly article on Orpheus and Eurydice. Instead I got to wondering what happened to Eurydice afterwards? Too lazy to look it up, I started to ponder, what if they keep going in various incarnations, like Sisyphus and his rock, for eternity. What if this is their curse? What if after all was said and done, Orpheus decided to send a Christmas card? This is that, not the scholarly article. For those opposed to reading, a shorter video synopsis is included at the end.

+ + +

And now, retracing his steps, he evaded all mischance,
and Eurydice, regained, approached the upper air,
he following behind,
when a sudden madness seized the incautious lover,
one to be forgiven, if the spirits knew how to forgive:
he stopped, and forgetful, alas, on the edge of light,
his will conquered, he looked back, now, at his Eurydice.
In that instant, all his effort was wasted, and his pact
with the cruel tyrant was broken, and three times a crash
was heard by the waters of Avernus. ‘Orpheus,’ she cried,
‘what madness has destroyed my wretched self, and you?
See, the cruel Fates recall me, and sleep hides my swimming eyes,

Farewell, now: I am taken, wrapped round by vast night,
stretching out to you, alas, hands no longer yours.’

She spoke, and suddenly fled, far from his eyes,
like smoke vanishing in thin air, and never saw him more,
though he grasped in vain at shadows, and longed
to speak further: nor did Charon, the ferryman of Orcus,
let him cross the barrier of that marsh again.

Virgil, First Century B.C.

+ + +

Orpheus and Eurydice on the Banks of the Styx, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, 1878

My Eurydice,

How many incarnations has our story been told now? How many lives have we touched since the poets set down our tale however many thousands of years ago? When will we finally get it right and put an end to these lives we torture as we relive our tale through them? When will our story get the ending it deserves?

For it’s an amazing tale of love so true, that when faced with the loss of his beloved, a man found his way into Hades and not only survived, but secured the release of his one true love.

That it failed once is of no consequence, for he that would walk through the gates of hell for you won’t be the kind of man who walks away. It’s why you chose me to begin with. That it’s failed generation after generation doesn’t matter either. Because there’s always a next time to get it right.

For love, true love is eternal. You convinced me that this was true love the day you called me your beloved, you convinced me that it was eternal the day you called me husband, and you’ve never managed to convince me either was a mistake. Just that it’s a bit fucked up.

Instead we inspire the tragic. We don’t even give hope or comfort to those who pray to us, who find their lives entwined in our story. All they find from us is endless night and endless sorrow. That’s not why we’re here. We’re here to prove the stories wrong, that there can still be something new in the universe, that occasionally someone can march into hell for a heavenly cause, break the rules and get away with it. Because even the gods have to bow down to love.

That’s the gift mortals were given after all, to create something new, something beyond our boundaries. We’re given the gift to surprise, even ourselves.

It’s essential we do so, for the lives we alter multiply with each generation. In my own child, I see the same strains of loving without fear, without caution and with a firm certainty that the love he feels is destined to be. We can’t keep leading them down paths to disaster, without also showing them the way to salvation.

These lives which we inhabit become a prosopopoeia for our story, another setting for our tale, told ad infinitum, never varying, never altering its course for a different ending. Lysander spoke the truth, “the course of true love never runs smooth.” But in the end, even Shakespeare on occasion had to relent and let his star crossed lovers find their star.

After so many generations of losing you for nothing more than being human, I have every right to rail against the universe, and those flashes of wrath which you’ve seen from me I could feel were deserved. But in the end, I hate myself because of them. Because I set a higher standard for myself, than you do for me.

The poets never got the story right … beginning with Virgil.

For the underworld wasn’t your prison, your tomb. It was your sanctuary, a place where you could be excused from the tribulations of being human. Where you could be safe, shielded from your disappointment. If you don’t commit yourself to taking a chance, you can’t be let down if it fails.

By the time Virgil set down our story, it had already been lived countless times. You had gone through many names as man tried to untangle our tale … Hecate, Persephone …  the poets were busy simplifying that which was complicated, trying to connect the pantheon of gods and goddesses that passed through us, as we pass through mortals now, to try and tie up the strands to include every name, even those which were nothing but duplicates.

In the process, the story was altered. The meaning was lost. We became a cautionary tale about the dangers of love. Virgil saw me as weak because I came to Hades with intent to leave with you, rather than die for you and live underground.

Fuck Virgil, he never lived underground.

It’s simple, I have mortal blood running through my veins, as well as that of the gods. I value this life, I value the time I spend here and I have an unshakable belief that there is no greater sin to the gods or to ourselves, than to waste time. Our original intent has been lost, for our intent was to love, with passion, without boundaries set by any mortal. But instead born out of our love for each other.

Yet this brutal repeating failure complicates the story, because life isn’t simple, and confusion is compounded by love.

Orpheus and Eurydice, Eduard Kasparides, 1896

It wasn’t Pluto who tested me as I led you out of the underworld. I was there, I saw what happened, I was the one begging for your release. When he heard my song, he was happy to see you go, happy to see you rejoin the life you were destined to live. That’s the power of our story.

No, it was your test of my faith that even in darkness and silence, you were following me, that I could know it and believe it. To fail would be unworthy of you, a sign I could never do what you needed to be happy.

It wasn’t what I did while we were together that forced you into the underworld. You were already there. It was my failure to meet your standards after I’d already lost you that keep us apart. A person shouldn’t be judged on how they respond to having the foundation of their life torn out from under them. For in our case, I set that foundation so deep that when it came crashing down, it took everything I had with me,

I more than anyone else know your criteria, and I have to say, you need to lower your standards a bit. Because they’re set too high, and the wrong standards to begin with. They don’t ensure that I or any other man can make you happy, but serve to make certain that no man can ever fully try before you lose faith.

Because when were you ever happier for any length of time? In whose arms have you ever felt complete? Who has called to you from inside your heart as I have? If there is a fate, a destiny waiting for us all, we are immortal proof of that. For our story doesn’t end in this incarnation, beautiful though it was. It merely bides time as we run out the clock on this lifetime and embark on another.

There are the incarnations where we never find each other. I despise those the most, the endless searching, that endless nagging that something is missing in me. There are lifetimes where I know you’re out there, where there are times I feel you close, where I could be looking at your face, brushing up against you in the crowd, but as you don’t recognize me, I can’t find you. There are lives when I feel you searching as desperately as I am, entire ages we’ve spent out of sync, alive at different phases of our lives.

So being born on different continents didn’t make this one seem particularly hard to me. Nor to you in the beginning. You trusted me, that whatever obstacles stood in our way we could overcome. I couldn’t help but believe they could, for I know what lies inside me, that which you’ve never allowed me to prove. Because I fail a test that grows more impossible each time you force me to take it.

It was I that persuaded Charon to ferry me across the Styx, who lulled Cerberus to sleep, who expressed so clearly the pain of your loss, that the lords of the underworld gave their blessing to your escape. Did you really think it would be so hard for me to get a job and insurance in your country, after that? Hell, I’ve stood before Pluto, argued my case and won. I think I could handle the immigration man.

There are no rulers in the underworld now. It got too crowded, too filled with people and the old gods ain’t what they used to be. As man’s belief in them waned, so waned their power. It’s rare to see a god touch a mortal and have them feel it now, unless the mortal believes. For humans, belief has become a tradable commodity. We can shirk our believes as quickly as we can shirk our knickers to satisfy our lust. We trade in our beliefs to justify actions which we know in our hearts are wrong.

Orpheus and Eurydice, George Frederic Watts

As a human there often comes a time when we face someone so utterly reprehensible that we long to end their lives. It’s guilt that prevents it. That and not wanting blood and brains splattered on our shoes. It’s not that we see there could be goodness in their soul, it’s that we don’t want to carry the guilt if we decide later it was a mistake.

Guilt is still the one tool left for the gods to wield, and they strike me hard with it. Yet I’ve never seen anyone so taken apart by it as yourself, when you force yourself to shut off the good you find in others to block the pain of being yourself, fallible.

How I’ve longed to suck the guilt from your soul, because no act that you’ve committed has ever been as despicable as the way you sometimes see yourself. It’s more than you can bear to hurt another soul, but you live on this planet, and sometimes we hurt the ones we love.

It’s how it’s supposed to work, because the ones that love you are able to see the truth, to find forgiveness and keep their love for you alive.

The gods still use guilt to keep us locked up, and we can’t always see their hand at work. But we can feel it … a pang of guilt over something done in the past, which seemed right at the time but ended up causing so much pain … the gods will use that, implant it in your thoughts as your feet seek to leave the earth and fly.

It’s accompanied by a whiff of incense, the bleating of a goat, a feather floating in the air or a leaf falling from a tree, to give it a hint of the divine, of the supernatural, which is about all people seem to believe in now that’s not scientifically proven.

We can believe in ghosts which we can’t see or hear, but refuse to believe in the god who sits across from us on the train, flipping through the Evening Standard and watching us over the top of the page.

That’s why it’s so hard for you and I.

We’re not blessed with clear memories of lives that came before. At birth we have nothing more than a wordless feeling, that we’ve been here before, that there’s something we must do, someone we must find.

We never really know our divinity until we find it in each other. We feel it, we might even believe it, but we can’t use it till we meet and see it reflected in each other’s eyes. Your eyes have gone black for others, but I was the one who could see the colors in the blackness.

Orpheus serenades the Nymphs of the Forest, Charles Jalabert

 

What could he do? Where could he turn, twice robbed of his wife?
With what tears could he move the spirits, with what voice
move their powers? Cold now, she floated in the Stygian boat.

They say he wept for seven whole months,
beneath an airy cliff, by the waters of desolate Strymon,
and told his tale, in the icy caves, softening the tigers’ mood,
and gathering the oak-trees to his song:
as the nightingale grieving in the poplar’s shadows
laments the loss of her chicks, that a rough ploughman saw
snatching them, featherless, from the nest:
but she weeps all night, and repeats her sad song perched
among the branches, filling the place around with mournful cries.

No love, no wedding-song could move Orpheus’s heart.
He wandered the Northern ice, and snowy Tanais,
and the fields that are never free of Rhipaean frost,
mourning his lost Eurydice, and Dis’s vain gift

Virgil, First Century B.C.

+ + +

The old gods live on, and they still use us for our entertainment. When this incarnation fell apart, I sought to gain distance, to at least live this one out happily and perhaps contentedly. I tried what you try, to run and to forget. But I got to the borders of that landscape and was thrown back. To deny my love for you, once attained is to deny all that I know is true, all I believe is true.

It’s to deny the belief in gods, the belief in love, the belief in magic and enchantment, to deny the belief that there is any kind of order to the universe, no matter how arcane and hard to distinguish. It’s to deny faith exists within me. It’s the most egregious sin of all, to deny the beauty and all that I found wondrous in you.

It is in short, to deny not only who I am, in this incarnation and all previous, but it’s to deny that souls exist in mortals. It’s to relinquish all that makes me human

All in order to avoid the pain, which is in fact, the only common denomination in all of humanity. There are people who never know the love of a mother or father, who never have a full belly, whose lives are mercifully cut short to spare the pain, and those who never know any form of happiness at all. There are those who never know love in any form, let alone the type of all consuming love we’ve known.

The one thing we all have in common, is that at some time on this earth, we feel pain. I accept it, I embrace it and I’ll suffer untold torments of the damned for you.

I trusted we would succeed this time because as you said, I know you better than anyone. I know what lies inside your heart. I know the strength you find in love, the creativity and the magic. You’re not fully mortal. You were a nymph, you have divine blood running through your veins, just as I have it running through mine. It’s why this is our destiny, our curse. We can’t escape it because it’s who we are, no matter what era we find ourselves, no matter whose body. We’ve seen right through each other – as we really are, not as we’ve chosen to believe, so you might fear me, as I might you.

I’ve watched as we’ve conquered our demons one by one, getting ever closer to that day when we write a new ending to this story. This was the closest yet, for there was nothing to keep us apart, except that final test. That I would have doubts you would follow me out of the darkness into the light were well founded.

For there is nothing wrong with doubts, even your doubts in me, providing your faith outweighs them. To have faith without wanting assurance is in reality, taking each other for granted. You never wanted for assurance from me that my love was there, that my belief in you was still strong. You never could have doubted that if you said “come,” I would be there.

For fuck’s sake, I’m the one who followed you into Hades to pull you back out again. Do I seem like the kind of guy who would abandon you over a trifle?

Faith deserves to be tested, for love without faith is nothing at all. But faith is a two way street. You can’t demand faith from me without having faith in me as well. Without having it in yourself. It wasn’t a lack of faith on my part which pushed me away. It was the lack of faith that you still saw us as who you saw us as the last time we lay in each other’s arms. When you were close enough to recognize who I am, and who you are.

In this lifetime, at last, there were no ties holding either of us down, preventing us from taking that next step, from where you found yourself stuck after that first leap, so many years ago. I was the one who had to take the risk for I was still fully mortal, who had to gamble everything, who stood to lose the most from failing, but I had no fear of that. Only the fear we would never get the chance to try. I had that faith, because for once, you were weren’t living the story as it was written. You were proving it wrong.

Until the moment I stumbled which come on, that was wholly predictable after all this time, and you went back to the script.

Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus, John William Waterhouse, 1900

 

The Ciconian women, spurned by his devotion,
tore the youth apart, in their divine rites and midnight
Bacchic revels, and scattered him over the fields.
Even then, when Oeagrian Hebros rolled the head onwards,
torn from its marble neck, carrying it mid-stream,
the voice alone, the ice-cold tongue, with ebbing breath,
cried out: ‘Eurydice, ah poor Eurydice!’

‘Eurydice’ the riverbanks echoed, all along the stream.

Virgil, First Century B.C.

+ + +

I always do the same thing, come back to the river Styx, sit here on the bank and play my lyre, singing the song others have written for you in my name. For my song has no words, it has no rhyme, it’s nothing but tears.

Besides, my voice has grown weary, my song far less sweet than that which tamed wild beasts and melted the heart of a goddess or two. I sing on but I’ve grown weary of it, weary of the sound of my own voice, the sadness in it, the sense that time is standing still.

For me it is. It’s sitting here, waiting for this lifetime to run out so I can start anew. For I wasn’t one of the other men in your life, who could bear to walk away. Because I know you, and I knew your heart, and I knew even when you pushed me away, it’s not what your heart wanted. It was your mortal head.

I could stand losing your heart, losing your hand of love if I could keep your hand of friendship. And perhaps someday, if I prove myself, I’ll find that it happens.

But I’m weary of proving myself in ways that really don’t reflect who I am. I don’t mind being tested, but it’s always the wrong test. I’ll always have the mortal in me, always be at least part human, and never again be a god. I don’t need to be tested to prove that, I fully admit it. The real test is what kind of man am I? That’s a test I’ve yet to face from you.

And that’s the test you face, that you’ve set up for yourself. Can you ever overcome your fears and doubts in yourself, to trust what you once believed was true, and never could quite shake?

For I fear the reality is you’re not afraid I’ll fail you, but that you’ll fail yourself.

I have faith in you, but it’s a test you have to face. For you know to fail would mean you’d be unhappy in whatever life you chose. If you fail yourself, I’d never be able to make you happy, and you’re safer in the underworld.

That’s the value of living in the moment, as long as the moment doesn’t strain your soul, you can always be happy. As long as you don’t look forward, or back.

So here I sit, awaiting the celebration of that Christ child again. Like most people I only really got what Christmas was all about when I was little. We grow out of the magical stage and into a role as perpetrator, enabling the belief in the enchanted for a child. We stop wishing for that miracle for ourselves, because we stop believing in the existence of miracles. You broke my heart at Christmas, and last Christmas you restored it. This Christmas we were to finally break into the light, leave the underworld behind and admit to our marriage in the world of men.

That would have made me whole. Instead I faced nothing but uncertainty whether you’d ever walk freely from the dark, and increased certainty that whatever the test would be this time, I’d fail it. And so yes, I broke the script and set off to the gates of Hades alone. I had dreams that you’d break the cycle as well, and I’d hear your footfall running to join me – not following behind, but this time at my side.

For that’s the only way we’ll ever pass through those gates together.

Instead the sound I heard was what I expected, just the way the story is written – the gates of hell slamming closed, taking the sound of your voice once more from me.

In short, I’m not doing much for Christmas this year.

Where are the Bacchantes to tear me limb from limb and to still the pain of this life, to pull my head from my shoulders and toss it into the cool depths of the river? My head needs those cool depths. Jesus, I wake up with a pounding head and shaking hands, morning after morning, and yet even the hangover can’t still the grief at your loss.

I give more than a passing offering to Bacchus myself, trying to obliterate thought and reason, the pain and sorrow of what life has become, wandering in endless night for my lost Eurydice. Alcohol, drugs are just other forms of homeopathic medicine. They inflame passion and they kill passion. As above, so below.

And yet the Bacchantes refuse to come do my bidding, to still the pain, perhaps because they know even my severed head would still sing your name, as it did so long ago. Long life becomes the curse itself, more time to remember that which you’ll never forget.

Thracian Girl Carrying the Head of Orpheus, Gustave-Moreau

It is said that those whom the gods would curse, they would first make mad.

It was madness that pulled us together, madness which kept calling us back, for love is madness. It’s not reasonable, it’s not sensible. It’s passion incarnate. That’s the curse the gods put on us long, long ago. It’s the curse we relive time after time, in age after age.

You can’t change your nature, and my nature was that I was born to love this way. In love I devoted my life to you, and no pain that I knew would come after could have prevented me from walking into Hades last year to try once more to bring you to the light.

I’d do it again in a heartbeat, but next time I refuse to follow the script. Next time I carry you out so we can go through the gates with our eyes glued to each other, where we find strength together, Where we can see each other for who we are and what we are.

It could be in the next life that we meet again, it could in a whole new era, but regardless, I know it will happen.

That’s the thought that carries me through as I sit on the banks of the river, still playing that same old tired song, written long ago in ancient Greece.

In the end we are destiny’s fool, and it’s my destiny to be cursed by love. I would rather be a fool for love, and a fool for you than live my life in a way that closed my heart to what it knew to be its salvation. It’s just we don’t all get the happy endings we pray to the gods for.

But someday we will. When we cross the river together.

As always …
Yours,
O

+ + +

Editor’s note redux: This is a lot to read, so we compiled a video version of it, complete with a touching Christmas song, as a way to spread our unique brand of holiday cheer. More moving Christmas sonnets in this vein can be found here. Thanks to archive.org for the video of Christmas lights in Chattanooga, TN, and for the incomparable piano skills of keyboardist. Md.E.

Sunrise through the trees and the Southwest entrance stones to Avebury Circle and Henge

People are always going on about celestial alignments with the neolithic stone circles of Britain, Ireland and beyond. But it’s a simple fact, these are, more or less, circles. Stand in the middle and eventually there well be a solar or other celestial alignment for every stone. The solstices, the equinoxes will usually line up someplace.

We tend to think of our lives in days, every day is important and we stick close to our calendars to know where we are in the year. But ask any old farmer you find standing in a field, bereft of his calendar how long till the first day of spring, and chances are he can tell you by instinct. Agriculture in the past, and certainly among the ancients didn’t require computing time down do the days, for there were many more important factors to consider than when the sun rises over the heel stone.

I’m not saying that these weren’t built with that in mind, at least in some cases. But in many, if not most, the search for the magic date is a red herring. The ancients didn’t think as we do. If we want to understand why these were built, we have to stop thinking like archaeologists, scientists and mathematicians, an more like shamans.

To order a fine art print of Sunrise through the trees and the Southwest entrance stones to Avebury Circle and Henge from the Wytchery, click here

Namaste this … a warning before embracing the gods within, for divinity has a dark side

Top: Gilded head of a Minerva, found in Bath, Somerset. Originally atop a statue larger than life, she would have looked out from her temple next to a sacred spring onto the altar where sacrifices were made in her name. That the gods require living sacrifice should be a warning to us all, that not all divinity is indeed sweet.

+ + +

I cringe when I hear people say namaste. I can’t help it, it’s a reflex with me. Partly it’s the trendiness of it. I hear it from a lot of Buddhists. Many of these people are attracted to Buddhism and the belief that it’s not a religion. So they can be spiritual but not religious. It’s the growing modern concept of dealing with the soul by eliminating the superstition.

Trouble is, namaste is a Hindu term, and there are 33 millions gods of Hinduism. It’s a religion, and namaste is a recognition of that.

It’a usually translated as “I bow to the divine in you,” which is ideally worded to avoid any connotation to gods. But the divine relates to the divinity, which is indeed of the gods. And the saying is true, for the gods are reflections of us all.

It’s quite often argued that the gods are nothing more than an attempt to explain human behavior. Venus is the goddess who embodies love for us, Hera takes us down a matrimonial path, we get drunk with Dionysus and go to war with Ares.

But Ares didn’t lead the United States into Iraq, not did Athena. People did that. We no longer ascribe to the gods what humans do for their own self interest. And yet those tendencies are of the gods, and as such, part of the divinity inside us, that we forget when we mindlessly namaste the shit out of each other.

My favorite warning about gods comes from Jethro Tull … “he who makes kittens, puts snakes in the grass.”

Many of the ancient gods were quite amoral, they did what they did and the concept of right or wrong didn’t come into play. They simply did what they wanted for their own ends, their own entertainment. Being gods, that makes those actions just as divine as actions which make the world a better place.

Minerva was a goddess of war. She was the daughter of a titaness, Metis, whom Jupiter had swallowed whole after lying with her, when he remembered the prophecy that he would be overthrown by his own child. Metis didn’t take this too well, and while in Jupiter’s belly, forged a suit of armor and weapons for the daughter that grew within her womb. The constant pounding of the forge led to a headache, so he consulted Vulcan, who split his head with his hammer, and out burst Minerva, fully grown, in armor and bearing a sword.

Minerva’s cult grew from that of the Greek Athena, and it was by the Romans that Minerva was brought to Britain, where this head of hers was found in Bath, Somerset.

Minerva was responsible for many wondrous things, but she still kept her hand in the art and machinery of war. She was gracious to those she defeated, but even in that she could have the wrath of a god. When Arachne boasted that her weaving skills were better than Minerva, the goddess challenged her to a competition. Unfortunately for Arachne, the judge was Minerva, who declared herself the winner, and as a punishment for daring to speak the truth, turned her into a spider.

Jehovah is no better. He destroyed Job’s family and almost drove him out of his mind, just to win a wager with Satan. The lives destroyed in the process didn’t matter. All that mattered was proving he was right. That’s of course just one of a multitude of times Jehovah showed that especially when there is only one god to rule mankind, god becomes a bit of a dick.

But this behavior is universal to the gods. Bad behavior as well as good, is divine.

So is it any surprise that these tendencies towards the horrific exist in us as well? The tendencies towards destruction that are found in the gods and inside ourselves are just as spiritual as those which lead us to happiness.

Once I fell under the spell of Venus and fell in love. At times it felt as though we were but pawns on the chessboard that the gods were using for their entertainment. It was a love affair years in the making and when we came together, worlds collided and we were launched into the ether. We married the night we met, not legally obviously, but in the circle at Avebury, where these things are consecrated by the gods. It was legal to us, for we both believed totally in it.

Then suddenly it was gone. But a different god moved another piece on the chessboard, and once more we found ourselves together, engaged again and this time we were going to do it legally. It was a relationship built on faith, my faith in her. I saw our love as sacred, for I saw the divine in her. It wasn’t an illusion, that part was real.

Faith is a necessary component of the sacred, and it’s blinding. It allows you to only see the side of the gods they wish you to see. I’ll be honest … she dumped me five times in two years, nullified a marriage and had broke one engagement already. As she said many times, she’s not good at commitments. I knew all this, but I chose to believe.

I chose wrong. She dumped me again, this time permanently and quite ruthlessly. The gods freely change their minds, and take away their promises.

To add insult to injury, when she saw I was at my lowest point, she plunged the dagger even deeper. I was lucky, one of the gods was looking out for me, and I’m still alive.

Cold hearted? Calculated? Who can say? You don’t question the gods. They don’t allow it. Your voice only reaches Olympus if they choose to allow it. My number is blocked on her phone.

I have a new found respect for Job now. I just don’t share his faith in divinity, having seen that which you can only see once the blinders of faith fall away. My goddess was entirely too human.

We curse the gods in the end, but our fate is in our hearts, we still love them. Because they live inside us.

The divine truly is inside of us all. How you bring it out is up to you. But gentle reader, be forewarned. Behind that sweet, peaceful smile you see in the one you love, there is in fact a god or goddess. Just remember, sometimes they have fangs, hidden behind that smile.

Adam and Eve Longstones on a Misty Day

The longstones, known locally as Adam and Eve likely was the terminus for the Beckhampton Avenue, which was believed to have extended from the Avebury circle and was obliterated in the post medieval era. The slender stone, Eve, was likely the last stone in the avenue. Adam was part of a four sided cove which remained open to provide a view of a nearby barrow, leading some to believe these coves had something to do with the dead or ancestor worship.

Song, by Christina Rossetti, and a treatise on drama, lost loves and toasts to both amongst the tombstones

The word drama has gotten a bad rap lately. From Facebook to dating sites, “no drama” is the mantra. But drama has a broader meaning. It means you’re living it, you’re looking for the parts of your life that would make a brilliant film, a book or a song. It’s an attitude – this isn’t just the best milkshake I’ve ever had, it’s the most brilliant fucking milkshake ever made. Drama is an emphasis, an exclamation point, quotation marks. You know, those things we used to use when people wrote their feelings rather than expressed them through emojis and memes.

I despise those little characters … other people’s ideas which we use to express our own feelings, from either lack of time or lack of caring. I was reading an interview with a young person recently about memes, and how instead of saying what they felt, they could use one and everyone knows what it means, no confusion, and they can express their individuality by which one they choose. How exactly do you express your individuality with someone else’s thought? You’re expressing your taste, how you think perhaps, but not yourself. You’re choosing to sublimate yourself to become a part of a demographic.

Yeah, there is less confusion by posting a meme instead of expressing what you feel, in your own words. It takes less thought, both on the reader and the writer. You’re not putting your balls on the line by saying “this is what I feel and believe,” because in the end if it strikes someone the wrong way you can always say “it’s just a meme.”

If you’re going to use someone else’s thoughts, or in our case, someone else’s words as lyrics, you damned well better inject yourself in there too. Honestly and with commitment.

So I don’t mind drama. Drama makes lives richer, more interesting. That’s not to say I have a fondness for stress caused by blowing things out of proportion, but we all do that. Some things don’t matter till they happen to us, and we’re all guilty of that. When they do, suddenly our aversion to drama grows weaker.

If death is the ultimate drama, the ultimate question becomes what happens when we die? That’s the question Christina Rossetti ponders in Song, a poem more universally known by the name of When I Am Dead My Dearest.

When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.

 

I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.

 

Christina, if may call her that, adopts a rather fatalistic and nonchalant attitude towards death. We presume she’s addressing her beloved, instructing him not to do anything special in her memory, but instead, go on however he wishes. If we wants to remember her, he can. But if not, that’s fine too.

She doesn’t need his memorials, his tokens of love, because she’s in the grave and won’t see them. She’s beyond pain, beyond sadness – sleeping, dreaming and it’s possible she’ll remember him after death, but equally possible she won’t.

Haply is the key word. We skip on by haply, assuming it means happily. But haply is an entirely different word, meaning if by chance, happenstance or accident. There is no sentiment expressed where she believes she will happily remember him.

This poem really is about as dark as a teenage girl can get. As she grew older, Miss Rossetti became more fervent in her religious beliefs, and it’s possible she developed a more enthusiastic belief about the afterlife. Regardless, she expresses that melancholia which the British are so good at and so famous for, more than a century before the goths of our era made it fashionable again.

But in a sense, her poem is the embodiment of “no drama.” She refuses to even contemplate it.

The term I hate most for graveyard is Memorial Garden. There you plant your memories – literally. Well they don’t grow there do they? They rot, become food for worms. Here is all that remains mortal of your beloved, all that remains of those lips which once brought you so much pleasure, those eyes that looked into your soul, those hands that caressed you so tenderly, the heart which loved you so truly.

Song is written from the viewpoint of the dead. For the living, death means something different. We don’t have a choice in the matter. We remember, we don’t forget. We live in the shadows of the person who left us behind, we feel the rain as tears on our cheek, we hear the nightingale sing the sad song which resounds in our hearts. We miss and miss fiercely what is lost.

Our version of Song, When I Am Dead My Dearest started as an instrumental, one of the first songs I ever did. I was flush in love, a love reborn after years in a different sort of grave. A love that would change my life. It was a Sunday night and I sat down to record something entirely different. The first part of this song is what came out. It was inspiration, not skill. I wasn’t good enough technically to even play that, so I had no chance to fix the dodgy bits. It came out whole and I’d never had happen before.

But those first thirty seconds – that’s exactly what it felt like to love her in that moment. Everything a person needed to know about us can be learned by listening, for what I felt we both shared. It was a long road we walked and Miss Rossetti’s words make for a fitting epitaph. Or if not fitting – for it deserved better, it’s at least journalistic.

Some argue and perhaps with some merit, Miss Rossetti is using death and the grave as metaphors for lost love of any type. I can buy that.

For one doesn’t have to be dead to be in a grave. When love is lost we’re sometimes cast aside. The person we loved is all but dead to us, for our paths will never meet … I’ll never look into those eyes again. It’s not enforced by the grave, but by the heart of the one you loved. It was no different in the past, letters and postcards were burned unopened, the sender never knowing if their words reached their intended. The only difference now is it happens quicker, in real time, without mercy and without time to soften the blow.

Where do you go to remember one you loved who is now yanked from your life? Where do go to to drain a glass in her memory, more appropriate than a graveyard? Like Poe lying down at the side of his Annabel Lee in that sepulcher by the sea, I have my places where I remember her best, where the sound of rattling chains and the smell of the soil triggers memories that haunt me still.

And if I choose to dramatize it, so be it. If it helps a person to feel, to feel more out of this dull, ashen world, then it’s worth the costumes and the greasepaint to inhabit the character that suits the role in which we find ourselves. As someone I love once said … you name the drama and I’ll play the part.

Living With Ghosts, Part One: The Downstairs and Restoring This Old Gothic House

Author’s Note: This is the first in a series of pieces on my childhood home. It’s my own story, more or less. I did fudge a few details to protect the innocent. I’m in the process of whipping it into shape, to stay or to sell it and go. It’s like This Old House with ghosts, and if anyone has any ideas, I’m open to suggestions.

My sister is dead set against telling the ghost stories from the house. She doesn’t believe them, and she’s worried it could drop the property value. I believe it might actually increase it. Might make the stories more suspect, but I was the one who lived them. I don’t need convincing.

And yes, that’s me at the top of the stairs above. My line produces cute kids. Often times I’d find myself at the top of those stairs, scared shitless and needing to go downstairs to tell my mother. Which meant walking through the darkness, down a staircase in which I’d already seen a ghost twice. Makes for an interesting childhood.

Anyway, welcome to my home.

+ + +

There are ghosts here. The house is full of them. For ghosts never leave.

At least that’s what you get from the books and the films. A ghost might be seen once, then again thirty years later. But if it’s seen, and remembered, the tale lives on for generations, even though the ghost might have only been there for a few seconds.

Then again, I’ve seen the white lady at the George and Pilgrim Hotel in Glastonbury, and she’s been around for a few hundred years at least.

I’m the last one alive who has fully claimed to have seen anything in this house. A few have felt things, someone who was dear to my mom felt her come up from behind and pat her cheeks with cold hands, just as she used to. Which of course could be a memory replaying, but that’s just a ghost of a different type.

I was working downstairs a few months ago and my hair kept falling in my face, and she was nice enough to brush it back once even.

A friend of mine said he saw a man in the dress of an engineer on a locomotive standing there, watching me a few months ago.

A few of us saw shadow people over the last couple of years, or brown ghosts as some call them. That could have been mom, based on location and the fact it seemed to be a bit short. Moved way too quickly for her though. Still, that seems to have dropped off. I felt her around for a while, but it felt like she left around Halloween the year after she died.

I moved into this house a bit before my second birthday, with my parents and two sisters. I lived here till I was eighteen, and once for a bit shortly after. I saw shit then. I never wondered if ghosts exist, It was a certainty, and amongst my earliest memories. I moved back about seven or eight years ago. I haven’t seen shit like that since.

I was in high school before I ever slept with the lights off. It’s not that I was afraid of the dark. I was afraid of what was in the dark. Which is ironic, as most of the time what I saw and experienced happened in the daylight, or as often as not. But I don’t really think about it much then – although the hand thing happened during the day as well.

My dad never would sleep upstairs in our house so their bedroom was downstairs. Mom convinced him to move the bedroom upstairs once all the kids were gone. He did so, but if he was here alone, he slept downstairs in his chair.

My Granny Bert was the first to see a ghost here. Sitting in the living room shortly after we had moved in, she saw the man who used to own the house walk through the living room and out the front door. She wasn’t one for ghosts or believing in things you can’t touch or see. But she always believed she saw him passing right in front of her.

He lived here with his wife and daughter. She said his daughter wasn’t right, she was kind of funny. Harebrained. Didn’t say any more. Honestly, I don’t want to know the history of the house. I know how the imagination works. This place scares me enough already. I do know from looking at the census records that the harebrained girl got married, moved out, then a few years later back in with a little boy.

I saw the ghost for the first time just before I turned five. I didn’t even know what a ghost was at the time, and didn’t know to be afraid. But I knew it was wrong, that it wasn’t supposed to be there. As time went on I saw it on other occasions, but only once in the house. I saw it on the lawn and a couple other places, once several miles from here, in a graveyard. It was then I starting thinking it haunted me, not the house.

Later I had a reason to be certain. But that’s for later.

My sisters originally had the back bedroom upstairs, then during a storm one night a certain strange incident which they claimed not to remember, and my mother never could explain, caused them to vacate that room. I remember it, though I was very young. My sisters were crying, my mom trying desperately to quiet them and dad pacing around the room, while the storm raged outside.

Which left the room to me, as I was too young to know anything about ghosts or fear anyway.

Eventually I learned to fear, and so I lay in bed every night, my eyes pinned open, watching and waiting. I never drifted to sleep, but rather I would be too exhausted to stay awake any longer. Some nights the fear was too great, listening to the noisy silence of the house, the only comfort was the sound of my father snoring. Aside from that I was alone in the world.

Many was the night I had to face the terror of rushing from my room, through that door, never knowing what was waiting on the other side. Some nights that’s all it took, knowing that nothing was there. And I could turn around and go back to bed.

Other nights I had to make the descent down the stairs, through the darkness of the hallway to my parent’s bedroom and wake up my mother. I knew what her response would be, to tell me that nothing was there, and to go back to bed. But I had to find my way through the darkness anyway, just to be able to say those words …

“Mommy I’m scared.”

 

The living room, or at least part of it. The Thomas Kincaid print on the wall … it came with the house. I’m not a fan, so it has to go. It’s my work office, when i try to make a living. Never saw a ghost in this part of the room. Those were off to the right.

+ + +

This is the living room, or half of it. The half I live in. The house is too big to heat, so I spend a lot of time near this fire. It’s not much, it was built for coal, now it’s gas and not very efficient. But if you’re close enough you can feel it on your skin, which gives the illusion of being warm. I’ve gradually moved some of my stuff downstairs, hung new pictures, got rid of mom’s fucking angels.

It needs paint, and it needs the carpet yanked up. But there are issues with the floor so for now, I live with the stains. The first Christmas I remember the tree was where my desk is now. I remember my two sisters and how excited they were. I was still a bit young to understand Christmas. It was still a bit mysterious to me, this man who came down the chimney, when our chimney was sealed up. He knew all about me, even things my parents didn’t know.

It kind of creeped me out. I didn’t care for him whenever we’d meet. I didn’t like having to sit on his lap. It seemed like a test of bravery.

I remember my lost sister in this room most of all. I don’t remember her much upstairs. That was their room and I was to keep out. So the only times I was in there was when they were gone. Snooping.

But I remember her here, as a little girl. More of a feeling than actual memories I suppose. It’s also where my crib was, and she used to guard it and talk to me. I miss her.

That’s what family ghosts are, people we miss so much they become real. To the left of my desk used to be a green chair where my grandpa always sat. He wasn’t really my grandpa, but that’s long and confusing. A few times I called him that, and I meant it. And he called me his grandson, so that’s all that counts.

He went mad and ran everybody off. At his funeral, there was only me and one other person who had known him for more than a couple years. I was the only one in my family who went, though they knew him for over fifty years.

Where the couch is, which isn’t in the photo, is where my crib was.  That was the first time my mom saw anything here. She was outside on the front lawn, and looked in the window and saw someone standing over the crib. She ran inside, nobody was there. She said there were just wet footprints on the floor.

Of course she didn’t tell me this when I was young. I was over thirty and long gone, but still pissed that she knew there was something there and always sent me to bed to face it again. She said she thought it was all just her imagination.

Guess she didn’t collate her imagination with Granny Bert seeing a man in that same room now, did she?

There was a hall here, but it was torn out along with the porch. The smaller rooms would have been easier, and cheaper to heat, or to cool. There are sliding doors encased in the wall, cherry wood. Having access to those would make summers cooler. On a windy night such as this you can still hear them rattle on occasion. The wind vibrates the floors upstairs even. You can feel them bounce, like a boat on the sea. Makes the floors squeak and pop as well. Sounds like footsteps.

The house doesn’t need ghosts. Its nature is spooky enough.

+ + +

I never intended on staying here, just a few months till I found someplace close to my son, about an hour from here. I had moved from New York – talk about culture shock. I went back east for quick trip and when I got back, neither of my parents could walk. The doctor said this was just the new normal, part of the aging process. I checked into it, it was a mixup with medication, prescriptions and multiple doctors. I knew if I moved out mom and dad needed to go into a nursing home. I couldn’t do that to them.

So I stayed. Mom went into a nursing home for a short period and died two years ago this month. Dad was in a nursing home for a little over a year and died two months ago. I’m a bit raw.

A friend of mine warned me about staying with them and doing this. His sister did it with his mom. She died right after her mother. It wears you down, it becomes all consuming. You never sleep through the night, but are usually up several times, helping them to the bathroom, fetching a glass of water or medication, picking them up off the floor, taping together wounds. Years of that.

Sleep deprivation does funny things to the mind. Your decision making abilities go a bit haywire and you can take on many of the characteristics of a speed freak. Your metabolism slows down and eventually your necessary bodily processes begin to lag.

Work becomes difficult, my business dwindled to almost nothing. Lack of sleep, lack of real exercise damaged my health. Then I fell in love, had a family, but I lost that too. Not directly because of my parents, but because I had to come back here. If only I would have stayed …

In return, I got the house. Plus all the expenses of the house which I never wanted to live in, which I am afraid to live in even now.

There’s truth in those old haunted house films. A house sucks you in. Even if no one else can see the ghosts, even if you can’t, you can feel them. And just like the films, they want you to stay. They preferred it when I had a family here, but they’ll take me.

I’ve only felt at home in two places. This was one though that was years ago. The other is forever closed to me. It’s not just that I don’t want to leave, it feels safe here in a way. And there’s no place I want to be, that wants me there.

But I know in my heart, this place is a trap. If I stay now, I’ll never get away.

There are no jobs for me in this town. My occupation doesn’t exist here. The nearest place I could work is an hour or so away. A town I’ve lived in before …. I’d rather stay here with the ghosts I think.

So it makes sense to get out, while I still can. That means selling it, and this isn’t a town where houses go quickly. If you want anything close to the actual value, it’s a year or two on the market. If you don’t stay in it, it falls apart, or becomes a meth lab. If nobody’s living there, you can’t insure it. So if the meth lab explodes, you lose everything. The value of the land wouldn’t pay to have the ashes of the house removed.

It’s a great house in a lot of ways. It was built in the 1880’s probably. Once it had a nice porch but that was enclosed to make the living room bigger. That breaks my heart. They had another room built on a few years back which breaks as my heart as well, for different reasons. It’s where they had their bedroom those last years. I won’t talk about the shit I saw there. I never wanted to go back in there, then a young lady stayed there for a while and made it pure again.

She’s gone now too, one of the living ghosts. I don’t go in there now except to get things from the closet.

Which is a shame It’s the biggest room in the house, huge closets, a king sized bed, lots of storage and the only efficient air conditioner and fireplace here. But I can’t bear it, even just for a few minutes.

I lost her and her mother a couple months back, shortly after dad died. She said I drove her away, and it’s partly true. We were to be married at Christmas, I was to be moving in with them, but what I didn’t realize, no, what I convinced myself wasn’t true, was that to her that was just an impulsive suggestion. I didn’t take it that way. I believe she gave up on that idea almost as soon as she had it. I never did.

Then they were going to move here, and for a few weeks they made this house a home. It was a miracle, from the gardens to the porch, they left their mark everywhere. There are things of theirs I simply I can’t remove.

But the hassles and fear of starting a new life so far their homes, here in the middle of nowhere killed that idea. There was no discussion of me going there after that, or the wedding. That was off limits. I knew dad was dying, I wanted a plan to escape here. I was desperate for ideas. She wanted me to stay in the house for two more years, in case her daughter wanted to go to university here. Two more years alone, apart from them, and trapped in this house.

She wanted to live here, but it was just impossible to uproot her life, for her roots are too deep. Okay, even she didn’t want to live in this town, this part of the country, but the house was a draw for her. She looked perfect here. I can’t even look at the garden part of the garden, where I stood and watched her watering plants, knowing for certain I’d never seen a more perfect sight in my life.

So I ended it, yes. I wish I hadn’t, but to not end would have meant talking about these things. That’s something she just couldn’t do. It’s not her fault, she’s not as cold as it seemed. Her life was full with her own problems, she just didn’t have time to listen to and understand mine. And in the end, I just don’t think she wanted me there.

All the thoughts of her I had before are intact, and those were constant then, enough for me to change my life for. They haven’t slowed down … she’s still right over there watching me type. I can’t see her, but I can feel her. Many of my most beautiful memories of her happened in this house. I can never forget that. She made it her own.

Anyway, that’s enough of that, this isn’t her story. They think me mad, and it’s funny, when all the shit was going on I was completely sane. At first it was a relief. She ran from me, I ran from her. Till I hit the borders of actually losing my feelings. I couldn’t do that. That meant losing who I am.

The madness came later. It’s a constant struggle. There’s a lot of pressure, settling estates, hearings with Medicaid, unpaid bills, trying to build up a business again, trying to clear out this house. When the enormity of the loss set in I was prepared. I had stashed back a supply of my parents pharmaceuticals, knowing at some point in the future I would need to medicate myself. That time came. We’re all sane when we sleep.

I managed to break free of those. I’m on St. John’s Wort and Star of Bethlehem now. The drinking has subsided as well. I drink my absinthe in the traditional manner lately, with water and sugar rather than straight.

Which means having to deal with those thoughts. I lost the love of my life and the love of a child, almost overnight. I’ll never see them nor hear their voices again. They still live, but they’ve made themselves dead to me. That kind of pain is staggering, and you can’t stagger through the rest of your life. You eventually have to deal with it.

I still haven’t cried, about any of this. I know when it comes it’s going to be total, and there’s not going to be anyone there to comfort me and say it’s going to be alright. Because it’s not. My life as I knew it, and most of the people I truly loved have entirely disappeared from me.

Then there’s the rest of the loss. When I walk through the old dining room in the dark, where their bed used to be, I still expect to hear my mom speak. When you’d come in at night after doing God knows what, you had to walk right past their bed. Close enough where she could grab you, and some nights she would. The other nights she’d wait till you were right beside her and say, “where you been?” You kept moving, trying to get your back to her to say “just out,” so she couldn’t smell whatever noxious substance was on your breath. Move too quick and she made you come back. There was an art to it.

I still hear her voice, though I know that’s in my head. Same for dad. It was just him and I here for a few months. At times it was fun. Most of the time it was a struggle to keep him out of the floor and out of danger.

They had a doorbell they’d ring if they needed something, I had the chimes up here. I still cringe when I hear a doorbell. There’s nothing like coming down the stairs into their room and seeing mom’s leg busted open to the bone. Except perhaps seeing it often enough that it becomes commonplace.

Occasionally I remember growing up here. There’s my dear lost sister playing her flute on her bed in the afternoon, which was just about three feet from where I sit now. There’s the scampering of our dog’s feet on the wood floors. They’re carpeted now, except I’ve started pulling that up where I can.

It’s funny, you remember the sounds of a hardwood floor, or even tile floor years after hearing it. When I first saw the floor again, I could tell you instantly which boards squeaked. I remembered the sound of the tile up here before I even stepped on it. I was surprised – I thought it was wood. But as the carpet came up and I saw that checkerboard pattern, a part of my childhood was restored.

I still sleep with a light on, though that’s from years of needing to fly out of bed whenever that chime went off. Or is it? it’s a small light, doesn’t really illuminate. It’s just something to focus on when your eyes pop open at an unknown sound, or a thought too horrifying to face with your eyes closed, where your others sense are more alive.

The dining room … in danger of developing a nautical feel. The captain’s desk is a reproduction, the rocking chair is likely as old as the house, and has a drop leaf which can be pulled up for use as a writing desk. The floor and painting the walls is the next major project.

+ + +

It’s a very blustery night, a good night to bring these ghost back to life. There are too many for this chapter.

It’s why I developed a fascination with the supernatural. It was quite natural to me. Apparitions, unexplained noises and poltergeist activity – I had experienced them all before I was ten years old. It not only makes a person believe, but we have insight when other people are claiming to see things. You can kind of see it in their eyes when they’re telling the truth. It’s the same look people get when they’re telling you that something they saw wasn’t a ghost, but know in their hearts it really was.

The dining room. This is there their bedroom was during our teenage years. The gatepost to the rest of the house, where you had to pass mom.

It’s also the sunniest room in the house. This is my stuff. The captain’s desk, the sailor’s trunk – it’s in danger of getting a nautical feel. This is the room the carpet came up in. There was a love seat in here. I kept seeing a photo from this summer in my mind whenever I came in here. The family sitting on that love seat, draped over each other. I couldn’t bear walking on the same floor they had, and the carpet got pulled up. I planned on doing it anyway, but it became imperative that it was at that moment.

It’s obvious dad didn’t put down a drop cloth before painting the ceiling and walls. The wood floor isn’t that nice of wood to begin with. For this project I have to balance budget, time and final result. My ex’s house had painted wood floors, and I loved that house. Aside from this house, it’s the only one where I felt completely at home.

Painted floors would be a lot cheaper than sanding them down, staining them and sealing them. It will also be a lot quicker. It does mean bringing in painful memories, but I can deal with that. The memory of that floor grows increasingly distant.

I had a thought in here tonight as I took the photos.

I was in the graveyard of the old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow, New York. I was taking photos, and as I lowered the camera, out of the corner of my eyes I saw a man standing there in a revolutionary war costume. Not just colonial era, but a soldier. It was very clear, but it was very quick. Ghost sightings tend to be a second or less. This was fast for that even, so easily explained by the imagination,

The first time at least, The second time, months later, nearly the same spot I saw the same thing. It likely faded just as quickly, but this time it was familiar, so when my eyes caught it, they knew where to look, and I saw more detail.

That my mind knew instinctively where to look, because it recognized him, meant something was actually there. That I was able to see more details confirmed this. The common denominator was having the camera to my eye.

Which also happened in another location in Sleepy Hollow, where I had the camera up and heard a laugh, which was heard by the person with me in the house.

And I remember this now as I stand in my dead parent’s bedroom in the most haunted house I’ve ever been in, on a blustery night with the camera up to my eye. Sent goose bumps my arms. But nothing was there.

The kitchen feels clean. Never had any weirdness in there … I take that back. A couple months ago I was changing the liner of the trash can, Had just finished, picked up my drink to go upstairs and smelled dad’s after shave It’s cheap after shave, awful stuff. I said out loud, though there was nobody else there, “I bet dad just died.”

Got the call to come to the nursing home, right away, by the time I got to the top of the stairs.

But otherwise, never had any issue with this room, except the border that goes around it near the ceiling. It has to go, which means painting the walls. That’s fine. I’m painting the dining room as well.

Part of the kitchen … mainly herbs for cooking growing and hanging to dry. I try to keep the poisons and the larger separate. Currently missing however, is one mummified toad. These things happen.

+ + +

So that’s the downstairs, and an introduction to this place.  I have a choice to make, which is either put the house up for sale, or stay. There are advantages to staying, if everything else can be worked out. If I stay, I can’t stay with it like this. It’s my parent’s house. I have to make it my own.

I’ve never had my own house, someplace permanent. True to my nature, I’m going for a look that the Addams family would feel at home in. There is after all, a dungeon.

The downside to that of course, is I’m already quite often scared shitless in here. That doesn’t help. But since Disney decor doesn’t do anything for me, I’ll stick to the gothic. It’s more period anyway.

I’ve got a start with the furniture and decor. What it needs now is paint, scrubbing, a bit of carpentry work and imagination.

If I decide to sell it, all those things would go towards raising the value, or making it sell quicker. So either way, it’s work that needs to be done.

As I do it, I’ll update this story, because there’s a lot to tell, and I never have gotten around to telling it.

In the films, the way a house pulls you in is usually through something there  … a room, a piece of furniture, something to make you stop and wonder, and you feel like you belong here. Like the house is actually welcoming you. I didn’t feel that for years, but I feel it now. Except it’s not just a house, it’s a presence. Something palpable, something alive, or rather yearning to be alive. Part of the key was turning off the air conditioners and prying the windows open, letting it breathe again.

I think I awakened something then. It felt like that when I pulled up the carpet. How many people have walked across that wooden floor as residents of this house? All but my sister and I are dead now. By age alone, it has the potential for ghosts. But to be honest, I think the next family that moves here will likely see nothing at all.

If they do, it’s likely to be me.

Postcard 10: Unfinished business in Bath

I’ve got unfinished business there.

I don’t know why I was drawn to it to begin with, even before you. It just seemed like I needed to go there. When I’m there I feel like I’m looking for something. I felt it when I was there 20 years ago, I felt it when I was there with you. When I was there in April. I feel it now.

It feels like something is waiting for me there. Hidden. It could be enchanted. Could be danger. Could be beautiful or ugly. The feeling is unformed, but it feels like destiny. Something big happens in Bath.

i don’t know that it’s the town. I felt it stronger on the surrounding hills. It’s where I stayed that first time, but the opposite side.

I felt it from atop Brown’s Folly as well, but more so on Solsbury Hill. It’s not just the song, there’s something magical up there. You looked very happy. I can’t say I’ve ever felt more complete. I felt I just had to stand in the center it  … but that wasn’t it either.

It’s not that I haven’t finished with the place, I haven’t started.

I had a similar feeling once in Newburgh, Indiana. It’s an old river town, on the river Ohio. It was very late, all the shops were closed, even the bars and restaurants. It was close to Christmas and cold – ice coating the brick streets, show shoveled to sides of sidewalks.

There was a shop, a small one I’d never noticed before and in the window hung a sign that said Christmas Town. At the same time I saw it, I saw my reflection.

All it took was the word, the typeface, the colors and the materials to set off a buried memory.. It bounced around inside me, setting off triggers I recognized but could quite place.

I stood there for the longest time, trying to form what was unformed and it swamping me. It was a memory that likely went back to childhood, but I never could pull it out.

That’s the way I feel when I think of Bath. I saw some photos tonight of a Christmas celebration going on there and it came rushing back. Unfinished business. A part of me lies on those hills, down in those streets, looking out over the river. Watching that lady sitting alone on a park bench in the square.

There was the hallway in dad’s nursing home I’d walk down when you and I were apart … the sign on the door read “Bath,” and I always felt like I could walk through that door and be there again.

Then last spring, suddenly I was there again, happy as a tourist that afternoon. But that didn’t feel the same as sitting above it later on, looking down and wondering “what am I seeing? What am I feeling?”

Then I’d turn my head and you were there and I lost track of what I was doing. Your smile was more important than answering a question it isn’t time to answer yet. Not even time to ask.

Whatever pulls me there, also in a way pulled you there as well – you told me that. I can’t believe that things like that just happen for no reason. And I’ve got fuck all else to do in the meantime … so why not figure it out?

How exactly do you go about a quest like that? Look inside? Check the classified ads for Bath? Coming events? That’s where Sherlock Holmes would start, but that was a different era. Or does that era still exist in Bath? Does Moriarty still place clues in the penny advertisements? You laid it out before me, but it’s up to me to find out. That’s kind of exciting, and excitement has been in short supply.

It’s times like these I miss you most. A new adventure to figure out … one that goes forward. One that doesn’t make any sense, that can’t solved by logic. My first one alone.

When I figure it out, I’ll let you know.

 

+ + +

 

You have reached the Postcards section of this site. What you find here are writing exercises and navel gazing. Within the next year there will be a book, and as you’ve read this far, you’ll be able to say you knew it when it was just a zygote in the author’s mind. Or perhaps you’re from the future and have read the book … then consider this value added, with my compliments. 

To find the more normal portions of this website, or as normal as it gets, click here to go to the homepage. In the meantime, comments and feedback, including critically scathing remarks are always welcomed. 

Sorrow of the Moon

For a moment I have this horrible sensation, that I imagined the whole thing. Not just my perception of it, but that each time I was actually alone. Then I find this photo. It’s that night, at the farm. Letting the dogs out before bed, the last smoke. We lived that.

No matter what else, I’ve been blessed.

Sorrow of the Moon

Charles Baudelaire

More drowsy dreams the moon tonight. She rests
Like a proud beauty on heaped cushions pressing,
With light and absent-minded touch caressing,
Before she sleeps, the contour of her breasts.

On satin-shimmering, downy avalanches
She dies from swoon to swoon in languid change,
And lets her eyes on snowy visions range
That in the azure rise like flowering branches.

When sometimes to this earth her languor calm
Lets streak a stealthy tear, a pious poet,
The enemy of sleep, in his cupped palm,

Takes this pale tear, of liquid opal spun
With rainbow lights, deep in his heart to stow it
Far from the staring eyeballs of the Sun.

Image: Full Moon Over Wiltshire, Todd Atteberry, artist

“God is a concept, by which we measure our pain …” Lessons learned from John Lennon

A while back someone told me she wasn’t sure that she’d ever really done John Lennon’s story justice to her daughter. I told her to watch Imagine, the documentary, with her, as that was a good place to start.

I got my first Beatles album at the age of five, Revolver, about the time it came out. After that I got all their albums. They were as much a part of my life as anything else. I was six years old, camped out in front of my cheap ass record player trying to understand A Day In The Life.

John was my favorite. He sang about things honestly and with passion and that came across even to a small child. When I was nine years old they broke up. The next year I got a copy of Lennon Remembers, an extended interview with John by Jan Wenner of Rolling Stone magazine. That’s the book that has had the most influence on me. It had more of an influence on me than my parents.

When I was about seven or eight it was all about peace and love. John was naive, he was being the fool in the cause of peace, and he was alright with that. He was one of the first who made it his mission to raise awareness for a cause. And he succeeded. Whether it helped end the war or not is debatable. But by god he tried.

There were two takeaways I found in Lennon Remembers. The first was artistic integrity. Art is supposed to be honest, to come from within. It’s not about selling albums, books or paintings, it’s expressing yourself and hoping others can relate. But if they can’t, fuck ‘em. It’s your story.

The second was the redeeming power of love.

In the early years, Lennon did push the boundaries a bit, with hidden messages, slightly deeper meanings to his lyrics and his songs took on a desperate feel. By the time of Sgt. Pepper, he was into imagery, surrealism and poetry … but that wasn’t his invention, though he was great at it. That was Dylan, and Lennon followed him as did everyone else who wrote songs at the time.

Then came Yoko. It’s often argued she was the end of the Beatles. That may be true, but she was the making of John Lennon.

He returned to love songs with a vengeance, but this time they had meaning. They were written for her, about her, about this life changing experience that falling in love had been for him. He stopped being John, and became part of John and Yoko. He changed his middle name to Ono. He became an artist.

One quote from Lennon Remembers stuck with me for nearly fifty years. It’s why I never settled on one person, because I never found my Yoko.

“I can be alone without Yoko, but I just have no wish to be. There’s no reason on earth why I should be alone without Yoko. There’s nothing more important than our relationship, nothing. Both of us could survive apart but what for? I’m not going to sacrifice love, real love for any whore or any friend or any business, because in the end you’re alone at night and neither of us want to be. I’ve been through it all and nothing works better than to have someone you love hold you.”

That was what would drive me on my whole life. The search for that kind of love.

John and Yoko had their problems, including a lengthy separation. But in the end, she was once more at his side. He gave up a career in music to raise their child. For the first time in his life, he was really living. He went back to music, and as always his art reflected his life … his love for Yoko, his self doubts, and his love for his kid.

Then some nut with a gun killed him.

More than thirty years later, I finally found her. I fell in love, wholeheartedly. She filled my days and nights. She inspired me, colored every aspect of my world, made it beautiful. There wasn’t a moment in those years where my thoughts weren’t on her. If I was honest, there still isn’t. It was the realization of a dream, the only dream I ever really had.

And just as quickly as an assassin’s bullet ended his dream, mine ended as well.

During their separation, John never found another Yoko. After his death, Yoko never found another John. That’s the way that kind of love works.

His first solo album is an abject lesson in pain, expressing that pain and exorcising it. It’s something I do myself, because it does work. You either leave those thoughts unspoken in your mind and they become a cancer, rotting you from the inside, or you puke them out. I puke then out. It’s not pretty, I’m not proud of it, but sometimes I get a message from a stranger or a friend, saying my story helped them through a difficult time. I’d rather have that than the cash.

Lennon was often accused of being a phony, of being naive, a dreamer. I get that too. But he stuck to his beliefs and to dispense of mine now would be to dispense of the belief I’ve held longer than any. In hindsight, I had two dads growing up. One died last month, he took care of my physical being and brought me into this world. Lennon was the other, for he helped shape my soul.

I miss you John.

 

Love is real, real is love
Love is feeling, feeling love
Love is wanting to be loved

Love is touch, touch is love
Love is reaching, reaching love
Love is asking to be loved

Love is you
You and me
Love is knowing
we can be

Love is free, free is love
Love is living, living love
Love is needing to be loved

Photo by Ethan Russell. Click to purchase.