Blossom of Bone

The oracle said: Summon the dead.

I’ve known for a long time it had to be done. It’s been over ten years since the palero said to me, The dead are looking for you. But I’ve shifted and fidgeted and avoided cos…well. When you get right down to it, it’s scary, isn’t it? I might’ve been doing this shit since the year dot, I might have had an unconventional upbringing, I might come from a family where people talk to dead relatives pretty casually, but I still grew up in this culture that says: dead people = scary.

The voices of singing women call us on the far shore.
It’s how it has to be.
What was that promise that you made?
Summon the dead.

I thought about doing it yesterday, but I was too sick to get out, and the oracle said: Abandon your cities for barbarian lands.

So today I went to the furthest boundary of my family’s land, where there’s a grove I discovered years ago. Now that that bit of land’s been in grazing use again, it’s easier to access, but it’s still there: a great spreading crabapple tree surrounded by hawthorn and blackthorn, with an entranceway between an oak and a holly.

The day was hot enough to go shirtless, with a mild west wind; crows and rooks and jackdaws hopped in the plough, larked and mobbed above it. The sky was unbearably blue.

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I didn’t have a plan.  I wasn’t even sure I was going to do anything.  I just sat down on the hard-baked ground, spring life rising up all around me, and…listened.  After a while I lay down; above sun came through the branches, dazzling-bright.

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And I realised: all this is the dead.

We think of them as grim, dark, frightening; tumblr spawns infinite blogs about ‘death witchcraft’ dripping in metaphorical black velvet.  But all this, this riot of green, the smell of fresh plough, the rough voices of jackdaws – all this is the dead, all this springs from them.  All of it is fed by them, consists of them.  The soil is full of them, the food chain, our very flesh: all is made of the dead.  At other times of year they may come grey and creeping or black and storming, but now, now – this spring day in green and gold glory, my body warmed by sun and hard ground – these are made of the dead.

And all that I am.  The language I speak, write, frame my thoughts in; my genes; my culture; my gods – all are the dead, still here, still manifest.  I am the dead walking the land in which they still live.

Where do you think your power’s come from, all this time? – an amused question, and I both comprehended it utterly and mentally stumbled.  Well, the land…  But the land is them.  And it’s true: that’s where my power’s from.  Call it the land, call it the ancestors, call it historical cultures, call it my forebears of the Craft – all of these are true, and all of them hold, are shaped by, are the dead.

There is no separation, no distinction.  There is no life, there is no death: there is only this, this rook-tumbling long-stretched moment; they are interpenetrating, inseparable.  In front of me new growth sprang from the earth, and I looked at it and saw it as the dead uprising, returning, manifest among us.  And, filled with this understanding, I noticed behind it an ear of grain from the harvest gone.

Oh, how they speak.  How they speak to us.

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“To work with the dead” sounds frightening, grim, grief-full.  But this is it too, this which I have always done.  When I invoke my gods, I work with the dead.  When I put word after word to make meaning, I work with the dead.  When I walk and work the land, I work with the dead.  I am their hands, their voice, their magic in the world.  We are not separate.  We are not separable.

In that grove there’s a burrow, unused this year and full of dead leaves; a thick root bars the top of its entrance, like the capstone of a dolmen, a barrow-tomb: a door to the underworld.  I had no offering, so I pulled caught fleece from the brambles and spun it in my fingers into thread, knotted it into a circle: ouroboros.  When I laid it down it twisted into a lemniscate, life going out and returning, endlessly, to itself.  I straightened up, turned around, and –

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…Sometimes the powers speak subtly.  Sometimes they’re a bit more to the point. [1]

I say again: there is no separation.  There is no life, no death; no living, no dead.  We are not distinct.  We are not apart.

βίος. θάνατος. βίος. Διόνυσος!

***

Listen more often to things than to beings
Listen more often to things than to beings
‘Tis the ancestors’ breath
When the fire’s voice is heard
‘Tis the ancestors’ breath
In the voice of the waters
 
Those who have died have never, never left
The dead are not under the earth
They are in the rustling trees
They are in the groaning woods
They are in the crying grass
They are in the moaning rocks
The dead are not under the earth

Those who have did have never, never left
The dead have a pact with the living
They are in the woman’s breast
They are in the wailing child
They are with us in our homes
They are with us in this crowd
The dead have a pact with the living
 
Listen more often to things than to beings
Listen more often to things than to beings
‘Tis the ancestors’ breath
When the fire’s voice is heard
‘Tis the ancestor’s breath
In the voice of the waters

— Birago Diop

***

[1] Yes, that’s the joint-end of a longbone – almost definitely a sheep.  (If it’s not a sheep, I’m in trouble XD)

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