Sunday
Aug182013

Devotions

Dolly Laninga


 

The omen appeared in the ninth month of the girl's melancholy and so naturally it was thought she had birthed it.

In that time we were newly-placed in the world and had not yet outgrown our yearning for symbols, for divine guidance; awash with gratitude for our sudden faculties and ignited by the delight of exploration, we segmented our days into various modes of spiritual fervor. Mornings we rose into the rituals set before us by our leader, the girl's father. He was a cudgel of piety who, in directing our mineral scrubs by the sea, rubbed his skin the hardest, groaned the loudest, submerged himself in icy currents the longest. Who subsisted on the least bread, the merest trickle of water. Who ground himself into his belief to uplift his spirit as one pulverizes the seed to release its flavor.

Under his spiritual tutelage we felt weak, foolish and fond. We yielded easily and sometimes longed for the warm darkness of ignorance—before the moment of our being, before our astonished bodies spilled forth into light. We missed what we remembered of that time. Still, none of us strayed from his orthodoxy for he gave us somewhere to place our natural faith, endlessly infused by our innocent bodies into the damp shallows of our breath.

And perhaps we were too eagerly devout; perhaps we were not sufficiently cautious in choosing a spiritual custodian. In any case, as one of his moral dependents, his daughter obeyed him as we obeyed him—indeed, her devotions surpassed all others in creativity and zealous abandon. Due to her parentage we believed her heart to be that much closer to the spirits' crushing embrace. In her toddling years her father swaddled her in a tunic woven of his own hair that she grew to love, would not be parted from even when old enough to choose. As a young girl she was given to submerging herself in tide pools for hours at a time, the tip of her nose just protruding from the water; we often observed her returning from the seaside with barnacles latched to her pallid skin. Their slow, bloody removal, accompanied by a prolonged divergence of air, punctuated an extended supplication ritual the more ambitious among us later learned by heart. We felt ourselves ranked according to the vigor of our devotions; this was the way of things.

Since the moment of our being, the world had mirrored our perception of it, did not extend beyond the boundaries of our awareness. The world corresponded to the range of our comprehension and was, as such, the perfect size.

But then our leader's daughter, whom we called C— after her disappeared mother, staggered into the afternoon custom clutching her abdomen. We rolled the heavy stones off our chests and gathered around her; she gasped that the stars had shifted, that their light had pierced her spleen and allowed her to foresee the arrival of a visitor, someone who had not awakened alongside us, some entity who would change everything.

Not knowing how to receive such impossible news we stared at her, stunned as bloodlet steers, confronted with an option not formerly within the realm of possibility. We felt relief, then, when her father advanced into the center of the group, dragged C— from the ground and stood her upright, and proclaimed that there were no others, that we were a singular creation, the pearl in the clamshell of the world. Occupied with the pain in her body, C— looked at no one, but we noticed the rapid, methodical movement of her eyes and could not help but wonder what she saw.

Well. We perceived the arrival of no visitor, no other among us, no. Not yet. But C— began to change; she did change. She left her father's dwelling and, some distance into the forest, chiseled a sleeping-alcove into the flank of a boulder. She could be seen tearing bark from trees at odd hours, wandering the meadows and gathering sheaves of inedible plants. Her natural heat must have increased, for she ate ceaselessly, strangely—dirt, leaves, and pine cones, which she chewed into a fine paste; the paws of woodland rodents, cured with salt and sun; bitter herbs bundled into capsules and held in one cheek or the other for hours at a time. She grew lovelier, smoother somehow, and held us in thrall even as her demeanor became increasingly fractious. Never had she been gentle, merry, but in this time she suffered no one to touch her. She acquired an affinity with startling birds and beasts: her every step was protected by a murder of crows circling overhead, and when we tried to talk to her, to draw her back to us, jagged reflections of their flight tore across her eyes, which had deepened into a shade of deadly portent.

Over time we saw less and less of C— until only fugitive snatches of movement—a snapped twig, a flash of skin through the undergrowth—implied her continued existence. There was no girl left, merely incorporeal traces of a being, of strange doings; merely the crooked animal tracks she left toward legend.

We looked to her father to help us understand but he spoke only of the transactions between sin and redemption. He reminded us of all we owed him, pointed to the healthy crops and watertight dwellings. He reminded us that iniquity was ever at hand—that it waited for fools to flout the word of the righteous. Then he performed many dazzling flagellatory feats and we could not deny his devotion.

 

 

On the first day of C—'s reappearance she emerged from the occluding darkness of the forest cradling something in her arms. Her father was in his dwelling; faintly, we could hear the measured drone of his entreaties. She took careful steps all the way to the little knoll at the center of our dwellings where we performed rituals on days when the elements would not drown out our expressions of spiritual ecstasy. She knelt and spread clean linen across the grass; she then laid the omen upon it and gazed down, her face soft with love.

The omen surprised and disoriented us. It surged but was still: a profusion of bewildering contours. It opened into an endless precision, repeated itself over and over, invited the onlooker into its gorgeous folds but, gazing upon it, we all felt stirrings of unease.

She touched it then, laid one hand against its curved edge and poured over it low, wordless sounds. It began to move then, to revolve, to churn into its own spaces, to orbit around its own self-contained infinity.

We watched the spaces open, bloom before us, each an invitation to a singular experience. We moved into the omen as we were able and, for the first time, felt alone.

And when it opened we saw slender leaves of a pale, fibrous material spread out like palms. She stroked the sheets, invited us to come closer, to study the symbols and drawings.

She showed us pictures of trees that, instead of leaves, blossomed at the stems into hundreds of birds attached by their beaks; each spring, she said, these birds hatch from little blue buds that crack and fall into fragile shells around the roots; in the summer the birds begin to beat their wings, and to stand under the trees is to feel that wind, that potential distance, pass across the face; in the fall the birds drop one-by-one from the tree and, just before they hit the ground, discover flight. Eventually the tree is bare again, abandoned by the flock, lonely for the length of winter.

She turned the page: drawings of a structure, different from our dwellings, a round space that drew the eye to its center. In some drawings, people crowded along the edges of the room, looked inward. All was clean and light and sharp. Some of us, studying this image, felt needlings under our skin and held our arms across our middles.

Another page. A healthy body, its every hillock and valley marked with symbols we did not understand.

Then: deformities. A child, face downy with fur.

A goat with scales and fins.

A two-headed creature kissing itself.

A maid who had been halved like fruit, splayed wide. Whose head was thrown back. From whose still-beating heart grew the grinning bulk of a hairless, tri-horned creature.

The drawings were crude and for a few desperate moments we hoped that she had done them herself, that they signified some perversion contained by and exclusive to her mind. But this was so evidently not the case, and soon we feared and felt that the whole of the omen had come out of her, that she had pushed it forth from where it had been hiding, deep in some dank, interior burrow.

Who else, then, engendered this thing? What other? Was there some sin made manifest and ghoulishly ambulant in the forest, wreaking itself upon the young and confused? Was C— now to be pitied, protected, or had she invited disaster by distancing herself from us, by repudiating all we knew to be good and righteous?

She met our eyes, received our scrutiny, her features plainly naked of shame.

It was in this moment that we began to wonder when her father might sense these happenings and descend upon us; when we turned to look, he had only just begun his approach, had only just caught sight of his daughter. He betrayed no surprise but drew himself up, preparing to mete judgment, and quickened his step as though eager to commence the necessary violence—

A figure darted from the forest, then, and C— laughed and clapped to see it dash to her father's side. Startled, he wrenched his arm away from its grasp, and then, studying its countenance, paled. Stepped back.

C— announced she had discovered this being nestled in the humus, had made its acquaintance. That she had taught herself the language of the dead, and had coaxed the being forth by promising to make known the truth. What he had done. What he continued to do.

The being held our leader in a complete embrace, pinioned him with dripping arms, with its own firm stance. It reached up to his face, stroked it, and his pallor was all the more pronounced beneath the swath of forest bilge left behind. As he shuddered and quaked, C— smiled gently, with genuine affection. The being then picked our leader up, careful to cradle his head, and carried him into the forest. C— waved fondly at their backs.

Now, she said, and her voice smoothed the air before her. She sat on the knoll in a pool of sunlight and we turned the blossoms of our minds toward her.

Now we have cast out that demon, she said. Now we have freed ourselves from spiritual tyranny.

She set her gaze upon each of us, on each face in turn, and we felt the weight of her attention, her intention. She took her time. She sought something in our faces, our eager bearing, and though we did not know what she wanted we each hoped we had it.

At last she dropped her scrutiny and her gaze fell upon her hands. She lifted them as though they were especially delicate, dangerous instruments, and closed the omen back upon itself.

Inside, she said, there is a universe. She stroked the undulate exterior. Here there are many worlds, she said, worlds we could make for ourselves, all of them better than the one you inhabit.

You are gentle people, she said. You have become so accustomed to diminishing your wants and urges. You have been taught that to be virtuous is to feel a hard, barren pain along your spine, to rend your hearts with devotions to gods who are not listening.

But your gentleness is not an excuse, she said, and neither is your stupidity.

So abrupt was her change in tone, so precipitously did it drop into a low, menacing register, that we all took a step back. C— scarcely noticed.

You are complicit in such cruelties, she said, such hideous breaches of trust. With your feebleness, she said, you extended your permission.

As she spoke she seemed to grow; her coloring darkened; she did not move but still we felt our necks cramp with the strain of craning upward.

And do not think, she said, that I mistook your affection for true care; no. Do not think I now mistake your eager vulnerability for true goodness.

She continued to deepen, to acquire significance, until we were able to appreciate the distance between us, to see how insolvent we had become.

 

 

And so we applied our blood to a page to show our understanding, our pledge of fidelity to the covenant; the page was covered in her symbols, the black lines a net she cast over our future.

Now we have grown cool to the idea of redemption; now we do not wait for the divine to enter our lives. Now she has gone into the hills and we have made new rituals: songs to coax the grain from the earth, songs to appease the horned wooly animals just before we kill them for their knotty, pungent meat.

We continue to cast our loyalties after her, to abide by and honor her dictates. And why not? After all, the world is such a flawed, lonely place and the gods are so far away.

She takes only what the omen needs, and we are grateful to have something to look forward to.