95 – Bloody Mary, Full of Grace

Another little something in the universe of Sects. I haven’t gotten too deep into the metaphysics of this setting, and probably won’t for a while, but the basic operating principle is that the eldritch invaders that have taken over the world respond to belief. A sufficient amount of emotional investment, commitment, faith directed at anything will, in effect, turn it into a tiny god. And I do mean anything. The cult of rejects at the heart of our story worships a taxidermied cat, and gives regular sacrifices to the router when the internet fails.

In a world where the strength and purity of your conviction determines the power you can manifest, children are powerful all out of scale with their size. Children’s belief is pure, thoughtless, as sharp and unstoppable as a diamond knife. I’ve seen it in this world as well as the one I’m drawing – if you ever did any playground magic as a kid, you’ve seen it too. It works when you believe completely that it will. The Ouija board may be a joke to adults, but when you were twelve, I’ll bet it told you things nobody there knew. If you’re the kind of kid who was jaded enough to actually say “Bloody Mary” into a dark mirror, just to prove how cool and unaffected you were, revel in your joyless little life, because you suck. Mary doesn’t give a shit about your cynicism; she only shows up if you believe in her.

“Bloody Mary,” November 2019

When all that matters is what you believe
children and madmen will hold all the crowns,
summoning goddesses out of the ground –
their congregations don’t have time to grieve.

Try to remember the words they taught you,
like “light as a feather, stiff as a board,”
rituals on bathroom mirrors, chalkboards.
Watch out Bloody Mary doesn’t spot you!

One of the first to answer our call,
Mary was glad to get out of the glass.
Plenty of vengeance saved up from her past,
plenty of straight pins to stick in this doll.
In the end, we barely had to ask –
she didn’t need convincing to kill them all.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

94 – Understudy

I guess I’m just self-flagellating this weekend. Yesterday four hours in a tattoo chair, today re-reading sites about narcissistic parents. I don’t keep going back to this stuff because I’m learning something new about narcissism – I’ve got a grasp on the pathology and it’s not complicated – but because reading other people’s stories of how their family treated them helps me learn what abuse looks like. It helps me understand what kind of behavior is abnormal, what I’m allowed to be mad about.

I have no idea what a normal family looks like. I’m sure I’ve known a few, but I’ve always found normal people intimidating and tended to avoid them. I guess I felt like I’d infect them with whatever rot was eating at the heart of my house. My parents told me that it was me, that I was the problem, and for most of my life I believed that completely. I believed it so deeply that when I wrote a letter to my favorite advice columnist about a year ago, complaining that my parents wouldn’t stop asking me if they were good parents, what I wanted to know was how to make the question go away. I wasn’t able to mount an argument that they were bad parents, but I couldn’t in good conscience claim they were good. Captain Awkward answered my question directly, and her commenters said what she didn’t: that the behavior I described didn’t match up with the praise I heaped on my parents. They asked me if I was even capable of feeling anger toward my mother. I realized for the first time that I wasn’t.

That realization got me into therapy, and in the last year of that, I’ve become aware of how profoundly warped my view of the world has always been. I haven’t talked to the fam in a bit, for reasons I’m sure that I’ll go into here at some point, but if they asked me that question now, I could answer it. They weren’t good parents, no. That’s it, full stop. They tried, and they genuinely loved me – sometimes – but they were not good parents.

They were alcoholics. It got violent sometimes. It got loud and aggressive a lot. My mom took me out with her to buy more booze at ten or eleven all the time, and I trusted her when she told me that she was fine to drive after killing two bottles of wine since five o’clock. Her undiagnosed dissociative identity disorder made life at home a tap dance in a minefield. There was no way to predict what I might say or do to make her change, but she could turn from cheery sweetness to red-faced, screaming rage and back again in a split second. She would lay down rules and later shame and punish me for following them, claiming she never said such a thing. She never remembered what she did when she lost her temper, and she could lose her temper any minute. What she heard seemed to bear no relation at all to what came out of my mouth. She projected so much hatefulness, so much malice and deception and sadism onto me that I didn’t exist at all. I simply filled out the clothes of whatever scapegoat she needed next.

We used to go to Blockbuster a lot – yes, I know I’m on the verge of old – and there was this shitty horror movie on their shelves called “The Stepdaughter.” The cover featured a blonde in a bloody schoolgirl outfit, holding a bloody knife. My stepdad – and my mother filling in when he wasn’t available – always made sure to point at the movie and say, “Is that you? You gonna come in and kill me in my sleep someday, huh? Whaaat, it’s a joke, lighten up, Frances.”

I never knew what to say to that. After a year of therapy, I can say conclusively that no, it’s not so very funny if you think your twelve-year-old wants to kill you in your sleep. Why do you think that? If your child genuinely wanted to kill you, why might that be? Because, you see, the only way this joke is funny is if we all know that it’s a little bit true, right? It wouldn’t be a hilarious joke if we didn’t all understand that at a baseline level, we do not trust each other, we fear for our safety in our own beds, and that, around here, is called love. This is not a family. This is a war.

And just think, beloved and brilliant daughter, light of my life, just speculate, dear stepdaughter: what if we should come to truly believe you want us dead? What if it was more than just a little bit true? What might we do, if this is war? What might happen to you?

“Climb,” November 2019

They painted a killer over my face.
They showed me that they thought of this as war.
I learned to be what they’d taken me for,
learned to play all their villains’ parts with grace.

They never tell you the name of the play.
Watch carefully and you’ll know what to do;
you’ll work out who you are from context clues.
No matter if you’re right or wrong they’ll say:

“In this family, we laugh when people weep.
We quote the bullies’ best lines back to you
just because we’re sick of children today –
and how can you be drowning, it’s not that deep!
You just want us to feel sorry for you
so someday you can kill us in our sleep.”

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

84 – Parthenogenesis

One of the things you hear a lot in support communities for the children of narcissists is, “Don’t go to the hardware store for milk.” It refers to the tempting tendency to continue trying to get what you deserved and needed as a child – love, support, approval, guidance – from a person, usually a parent, who has already shown themselves to be incapable of giving you that thing. You keep going to the hardware store for milk, and you know they don’t have any, never did and never will. That sucks, it’s not fair and it’s not your fault, but the third or fourth – or hundredth – time you go in there asking for milk, it starts to look like self-flagellation. Your hope is killing you.

If you didn’t get a lot of that kind of familial support as a kid, you’ll probably go looking for it in everyone you meet. If you were raised by a narcissist, or an addicted parent who required you to parent them, you were taught to be someone’s emotional crutch. You were taught that someone who needs you to manage their emotions for them constantly is… someone who loves you. You were taught that when you manage other people’s emotions for them, when you determine your value by how much you please others, that’s you showing love.

It hurts to realize that your parents are never going to turn into the parents you needed them to be. It hurts even more to realize that hoping they will is still you judging yourself by their standards. It’s still you conceding that your life needs their stamp of approval. And when you give that up, it feels like being set adrift, shorn of your identity. It feels like all you had was that battered heart they left you with. If not there, where will you live?

Creating an identity, for me, has been a process that works from the edges in, something I perceive mostly as negative space. I imagine a person-shaped void, a starfield with arms and legs, and I imagine that person doing the things I do. Then I try to describe, as objectively as I can, what that person is doing and what I would conclude about that person from their actions. This helps me somewhat sidestep my tendency to judge myself differently from how I judge others.

This person-shaped void has become very important to me. I realized that there is only one person to whom I can safely say things like, “I need you to never leave me. I need you to love me completely, to the exclusion of all other things.” Though those are feelings we deserve and need to have at some point in our lives – ideally when we’re growing – they’re not sentiments that can be safely addressed by an adult to another adult. No other person can or should be the source of all your joy, or self-worth, or drive. So if you need to be loved like that, but no adult can responsibly promise you that they will forever… can you make that promise to yourself?

I was unable to come up with a reason why I couldn’t, so I did. I’ve promised plenty of young guys and girls that I’d love them forever, never leave them, sacrifice all for them. Why should that promise be any harder or less important to make to myself, when I’m the only one in the world who literally can’t leave me?

I can’t leave me, but I can ignore and punish myself. I can fail to love myself. I can fail to sacrifice my momentary comfort and security for the long-term good of the person I’m supposed to take care of. That’s neglect when a parent does it to their child… so it’s neglect when I do it to myself.

Imagining myself as this other person, this star-filled void, makes it a little easier. I imagine vague, bright arms around my shoulders, warmth against my body. I feel the deep love and commitment I make to others and try to imagine this void, myself, feeling that way about me. I know exactly what it should feel like, right? I know I’m capable of it. So to imagine it, in this context, is to create it.

We talk about self-worth, love, belief in ourselves, like those things are rare treasures buried underground somewhere, that we could find if we were only brave, diligent, strong enough. It’s not like that. You have love, belief, esteem. You know you do. You apply them to others all the time. All you have to do is try to apply them to yourself. No matter how stupid it feels.

Turn up your favorite love song, and imagine your own face as hard as you can. Imagine singing that song to yourself, the passionate feelings you’d have if you sang it to another person, but with your actions, your life, YOU in mind. This is easy to do when you’re alone – put on headphones and let yourself mouth the words, let yourself cry if you feel like crying. It’s good for you. Do this over and over until it no longer makes you cry, no longer makes you feel silly. Then pick another song, another tender ballad or sweet jam about someone with your hair color, and do it again.

This is one of the ones I used to sing to other people… now I sing it to myself. Try it on, I dare you. If it doesn’t matter, if it’s a silly thing to do, then do the silly thing for four minutes. Won’t matter anyway, right?

I found a negative space to love me,
the space between what was and should have been.
Over the years I’ve colored that space in
with starfields I’ve never seen above me.

In its way, it’s no more illusory
than any constellation I could try
to pin my hopes on, plot my progress by –
who drew the lines between the stars but me?

I feel my own fingers inside my head;
I feel myself pressed up against my back.
I swoon and let me take myself to bed,
each kiss and touch returning what I lack.
Who else can promise, even when I’m dead
to wrap my arms around us in the black?

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

77 – Proving

I’ve been playing Path of Exile for a good while now – since, ah… Talisman league, so about four years. I’ve spent a lot of time on it, Steam tells me I’m just shy of 2000 hours, plus some on the game’s own client before I discovered it was on Steam, but in all that time I haven’t really “gotten good,” or not so’s you’d notice. I make it to maps every league, I’ve killed the Shaper and the Elder once apiece, but I’m scared of human interaction so I don’t trade with other players, which means my gear’s always a mismatched tuxedo stitched together from scalps and stolen pants. And when you’re not making it to the hardest content anyway, it doesn’t matter if you’re a bit bad. I still have fun.

It’s an incredibly dense game, and you can go down that rabbit hole just about as far as you fuckin’ please, but the fact is I just want an endless grind. I don’t actually care about winning, I just like that the drops don’t stop and the world is weird and bloody and beautiful.

One of the characters in that game is a dude named Izaro. Actually, he’s dead, but it didn’t take – a lot of the people you’ll meet are dead, or have died multiple times; you will too, it’s just something you’re going to have to get used to in Wraeclast. Short version is, Izaro was an emperor who couldn’t sire an heir, and so he built a huge labyrinth of traps and promised his throne to the first person to survive it.

A kid named Chitus Perandus used his family’s vast wealth to buy plans of the place, and cleared it easily on his first try. As he’d promised, Izaro gave his throne to Perandus, who then promptly imprisoned Izaro in his own labyrinth. So then Izaro’s like, “Okay, first heir didn’t work out so good, this might take some time. No point in scrapping a good idea.” He prays to the Goddess of Justice for the power to judge and test the worthy for as long as it might take to find an heir. The Goddess of Justice kind of, uh… takes over his body? Or they fucked like bunnies and fused together? It’s probably thaumaturgy. Anyway, they’re one immortal being now, who sits in the Lord’s Labyrinth ready to test you for the throne of an empire that fell three hundred years ago. What he actually can do is give you treasure and Ascendancy points, another form of progression for your character.

What I like about Izaro is his attitude. He talks to you throughout the Labyrinth, as you stagger into traps, get mobbed by statues come to life, and fight Izaro and his goddess three separate times. In one room of the Labyrinth you can find Argus, a huge monstrous beast known as Izaro’s “dog,” and killing Argus gets you another key to the treasure vaults and a mournful comment from Izaro, but even then, no rage, no hostility. No matter what you do, no matter whether you win or lose or how stupidly you die, Izaro never criticizes you. He offers sage advice most of the time, sometimes pointedly targeted at your most recent stumble, in the form of lessons to a protege, or an heir:

“Decisions don’t kill people… consequences do.”
“A wise emperor knows when to circumvent a troubling situation.”
“Astute perception may yield a wealth of insight.”

Goddess of Justice on the right, yours truly as a bulb-headed purple bitch with a sword twice her size on the left. It’s always this glorious late afternoon in the Labyrinth. I just want to hang out there.

When you beat him and take his throne – he’s not up on current events, so don’t tell him what happened to the empire – he praises you. The voice actor is amazing, and he never sounds angry, never sounds like he doubts the aspirant’s abilities at all, just offers insight and advice. His cry of triumph when you defeat him is one of the most inspiring sounds I’ve ever heard; it makes me feel like I just punched God.

It’s perhaps more deeply moving to me as someone who’s still learning that it’s possible to improve without being cruel to myself. The brutal lessons I was taught were “for my own good” were just sloppy, clumsy instruction, and pain is not the best teacher. It blows my mind that this is still a somewhat controversial statement to make, but I have never in my life seen cruelty make someone do better, at anything. Everyone’s got a story of some athlete whose family abused them until they won the Olympic gold, and that’s great and all, but when you start reading up on the rates of suicide among Olympians, you start to wonder if that’s what winning looks like.

Everyone’s got a parent who said, “hey, my folks beat the shit out of me, and I turned out okay.” And I don’t think there’s a single kid who had to listen to that who wasn’t biting their lip to keep from saying, “Are you sure you turned out okay? Because from here it looks like you turned into someone who would heartily endorse injuring, degrading and mentally subjugating a child, and that’s not anywhere in my definition of okay.” No. No one was ever improved by cruelty. Some people have been able to improve despite cruelty. If you were treated badly and you turned that experience into success, that choice and that victory is yours. It does not belong to your abusers. Or, as Izaro puts it:

“When bound by faith and respect, the flock will overwhelm the wolves.”

The sun in the plaza hangs in the sky;
it’s five in the afternoon all day long.
Wind in the broken columns sings a song
of victory, and worthy ways to die.

No empire now for Izaro’s heirs,
but no Perandus could pay them to stop
flogging the old man each day till he drops.
Pursuit of power – a grotesque affair.

His children all, he leads us through the fog,
introducing each new device with glee,
cutting down dilettantes and demagogues.
A toymaker trapped in his own workshop
with his last breath praises his enemy,
even the ones who stopped to kill his dog.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

67 – The Curious Ones

Today is my birthday! I’m as old as Jesus now. Not quite ready for martyrdom yet – you’ll be the first to know! Mostly I spent the day running errands, which isn’t as dreary as it sounds; I find errands pleasant most of the time. I wear my headphones and just bop along in my own little world.

I see weird stuff in my little world sometimes. As I’ve mentioned, I fixate on color and composition, and I’ll catch these frozen moments, these random tableaux that stop me in my tracks and make me forget what I’m doing.

When I was about twelve, I remember being in the passenger seat of the car, driving down Columbus Boulevard in Tucson. Tucson doesn’t have a lot of grass, because it’s the desert, and it doesn’t have a lot of sidewalks, and I don’t know why that is. Most streets just have dirt, curb, and then pavement. We’d just passed the park with the YMCA in it when I saw a woman standing in the dirt at the side of the road, wearing a white sundress and a hat. She looked pretty in an old-fashioned kind of way, and she stood with her feet together, leaning almost precariously to one side as her fluffy golden dog pulled its leash straight out. On the other side, a child about four or five pulled her other arm just as far. I caught this perfect moment: the slant of her body and arms, like architecture, like the sound a blade makes in the air; the stark color of her dress against the dirt and the furious burning blue of the sky, the way her face was alive, just on the edge of laughing, and the faces of her charges were too, consumed by their own totally incompatible pursuits.

That’s it. Just a woman with her kid and her dog pulling her in two directions at once, for a second. I still remember that, every detail of how she looked, twenty years later. In my mind she transubstantiates, shifting from woman to edifice to weapon to woman again, always smiling.

If I ever tell you I saw an angel, that’s usually what I mean: I saw someone who pulled me out of myself, someone frozen in a moment so flawlessly arresting that I can keep it forever, step back into it anytime I want. My brain embroiders them with power, magic, strangeness, significance. That’s what it is to be human, I think – to imbue things with import that way, to point at a thing and declare it to be meaningful, and thus to make it so. My life is a sequence of moments like that, in some vague order. Everything in between is just bloodless data, nothing but names and dates.

“Memory, prophecy, and fantasy; the past, the future, and the dreaming moment between – all are one country, living one immortal day.”

– Clive Barker, “Everville”

I saw a couple of angels today –
a woman stood at the side of the road
out of her open palms a river flowed
that bit by bit washed all her skin away.

They’re easy to spot in the afternoon –
their wings get tangled in the golden light.
They can’t escape or fall, but hang in flight,
stuck there dreaming till the rise of the moon.

On the ground, you can tell them by their eyes,
flat and bright like silver coins, reflective
and, of course, the peculiar things they do.
Though people still expect them to be wise
and ask them questions till their lips turn blue,
all they’ll show is you, from their perspective.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

56 – Giant’s Drink

Like a lot of kids in the 90s, I read Ender’s Game and the rest of the series in junior high school. I remember that nearly everyone I knew had read it, and I remember that we didn’t need to talk about it very much. In retrospect, I can safely conclude that I had more in common with my classmates, even the ones I didn’t like, than I thought at the time. I was in gifted classes at the worst middle school in town, so the other kids around me were a pretty consistent brand of highly pressured and poorly supported. These kids were told every day of their lives that a scholarship was their only shot at security, that college would free them from their parents’ circumstances. To us, this meant that every single failed test, every single missed homework assignment was pissing our lives away, trashing our opportunities. Not only were we screwing up, but every screwup went on our permanent record, which it turns out is a real thing after all – it’s just measured in dollars, not grades.

It was like the Battle School. The peer group could be vicious and chaotic but there wasn’t a single kid you wouldn’t trust over any adult. They weren’t going to help you; tell an adult you had a problem and you’d get in trouble for causing it. No one could help you even if they cared to – they’d already given you everything they could, and now it was up to you to prove you deserved it.

Some of us did. Maybe most of us. It seems like most of the people I knew have landed on their feet, but then, people don’t post their private miseries on Facebook, so who knows. I related very much to Ender, and many images from that series have been stamped into my brain, another part of that internal landscape. The skeleton of the Giant, with the village built among the bones, is one of them. The choice that Ender made at the Giant’s Drink, to neither choose death NOR give up, but to force the game to create a third option… that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m not going to win or lose. I don’t agree that we should be having a race in the first place.

“Flicker,” April 2007
Jeremy. Another one like me who didn’t land on their feet.

Somehow I sense that this dream is different.
It’s the same crater, the same blasted ground,
same faceless gravestones all scattered around,
same wrought-iron fence barring where you went.

It turns out I don’t have to go that way.
I never thought to turn around and look
what there might be besides the route you took
or what I could build here if I would stay.

Graveyard is a great place for a garden…
we’ll grow flowers in the giant’s ribcage,
a basket made of his fossilized rage.
A different vine will sprout from each organ.
His blood, a wine that just sweetens with age
leaves the drinker insatiably starving.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

54 – Prison Age

There are a lot of tattoos I want to get, when I can afford it. I’d like to be the old lady just covered in tattoos; frankly, I can’t wait to see what nursing homes look like 50 years from now. It’s gonna be tattoos, green hair, and heirloom XBoxes from hell to breakfast. Anyway, one of the many tattoos I would like is the Star Fissure from Myst on my back, because Myst is another one of those games that is really, really important to me.

When I was a kid, we had an NES for a short while, but after that it was just the few games my grandparents had on their computers at their house, which is how I ended up much more comfortable with PCs than with consoles at an early age and became the kind of insufferable dork for whom less-than-cutting-edge graphics can ruin a game. I’m not immune to the charm of 16-bit remakes, especially when they’ve had the cruel coin-op edges sanded down, but I’m sorry, I do not understand how the drama of Cloud and Aeris was ever in any way emotional. How can you get choked up about the suffering of a dude with a bowling pin dangling from each shoulder and a skull shaped like a milk carton?

I got really obsessed with Myst, read the books and became very nerdy about the lore. The power of words to create worlds, and the idea of quantum dimensions separated by branching probabilities, are two ideas that came from that obsession and have absolutely shaped my current work. Moreover, I think I found Myst, especially the main island, to be a kind of refuge. It was a completely different experience from the rest of my life at the time.

I only got to play when my grandparents were otherwise busy, so I was never bothered. We all played on the same save, and wrote down notes – little sketches of symbols, descriptions of levers, questions to answer – in a notebook kept by the computer. We all worked cooperatively this way, and I was able to contribute just as much, because in the world of PC games in 1993, we were all noobs and being older didn’t help. Being allowed to do something difficult, requiring lateral thinking and attention to detail, and not having control wrenched from me every few seconds to demonstrate how badly I was doing, but having my input respected and welcomed… it was intoxicating. Being somewhere quiet, where every sound and movement was in my control, where no one could ever possibly surprise me by appearing where they hadn’t been before… I felt safe. Safety and agency. Myst gave me what my family was supposed to, precisely because it made my family leave me alone. Video games became a place I could hide where they would never try to follow.

So I want to get the Star Fissure tattooed on my back, below a quote from Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.”

The ending has not yet been written.

A world of words, it starts with waves and me,
on one side, a sloping hill and a door,
on the other, a dock but no far shore –
just me, infinite silence, and the sea.

Over time, I color in the silence,
purple groan when
something
somewhere
has changed
Sirrus in blue with his cold, smiling rage,
Achenar red with impotent violence.

I burn the pages and the linking books
make my home in the planetarium
soon begin forgetting the world I’m from
fish in the fountain with tiny fishhooks
a world of nothing but ocean and sun.
No one will find me cause no one will look.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

44 – The Wild One

I have a busy day today – freelancing, man, no weekends – so you’re getting something early instead of me scrambling to do it later. Imagine that, it’s like a Christmas miracle.

When I was a kid, I was really into wilderness survival stories; I think I’ve mentioned it. Island of the Blue Dolphins is a great one, super exciting and empowering for young girls. Anyway, I’ve never been able to find one of the books I had, which is a bummer, because it was deeply fucked-up. I’ve done a fair bit of googling but I haven’t been able to nail it down; could have sworn it was called “The Wild One,” but all the books I’ve found by that title aren’t the right one.

It was about a girl who runs away from an orphanage where she’s abused. She runs into the mountains, into the woods, and lives in a cave, does fairly well for herself all things considered. She’s something like eight or nine when she runs away, so growing up by herself in the woods, she doesn’t learn to interact with any people very well. She’s been there alone for years when a young man, hiking in the mountains, falls down a slope and breaks his ankle. She drags the kid into her cave to keep him from dying of exposure, and nurses him back to health, and of course somewhere in there, they have sex, because they are teenage humans alone in the woods with compatible genitals.

The end of the book takes a pretty harsh turn if I remember it right. I’m not sure I do. As the boy gets less delirious from his broken ankle and fever and so on, he wants to go home to his family, and tries to convince her – in the broken words they’ve been able to figure out between them – to come with him. She won’t, and frightens him by trying to get him to stay with her, and he leaves. Shortly thereafter, she discovers that she’s pregnant. She doesn’t really get it, as no one’s ever explained that shit to her. At the end, she dies in childbirth, alone in the woods, along with her child, and some hiker later finds their bones.

It’s… so hard for me to remember that book and see it as anything but a threat, y’know? Like a slasher movie, intended to make teens scared to fornicate in case Freddy comes for them. Only virgins get out alive. Except in this case it was: “If you ever run away, don’t you dare come back. See what happens to you. It might be bad here, but you can’t survive out there. You need us.”

That’s what I’ve always been told. I’ve always been sold my own family as a necessary evil, something that, if I were less weak and incompetent, I could escape. How did not one of these brilliant people listen to themselves? It’s such a classic abuser dance. “You don’t know how bad it is out there. No one can protect you but me. I only scare and threaten you for your own good.” (Our President talks like this constantly – isn’t it cool how he’s the narcissistic abusive stepfather of our nation?)

Yeah, this movie was kind of… revelatory, for me.
If your mother-daughter relationship looks anything like this,
may I recommend a nice cave in the woods?

So this poem is for the Wild One, whoever she was. Maybe I won’t ever find that book, but… I did find a cave to live in. It’s small, but it’s mine, and only people who are kind to me are welcome here. That makes it better than any other place I’ve ever lived. This poem is sad but I want you to know that I’m not, not quite – I know that I will never be fully free of these voices in my head, and I also know that I’m not gonna die out here because they told me to. It’s hard and it’s cold but out here, my voice matters more.

Water babbles over her wrists, saying,
“Are you really sure that’s what you’re wearing?”
She feels the forest around her tearing
“You must stop this silly game you’re playing.”

She ran to the wood, but found no silence.
She ran to mountain caves but found no peace.
The cage is in her head – there’s no release.
The woods didn’t even stop the violence.

The leak starts as the smallest thing, a crack
but you should see how fast it unravels,
a fissure in the ground so deep and black
it can swallow every sprout and fledgling.
It doesn’t matter how far she travels,
the voices of her scars will drag her back.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

43 – The Maid

I stumbled upon this transcript of Joan of Arc’s trial a few days ago, and I’ve been reading it ever since. I’ve always been kind of fond of Jeanne (gonna spell it the French way because this transcript does throughout, and now it feels more correct to me). One Halloween when I was about sixteen I dressed up as a rather transgressive punk-rock Jeanne d’Arc – it was an excuse to buy the $80 chainmail hood I’d been eyeing on the shelf at the vintage thrift shop for six months. I added to that a white-and-gold long-sleeved dress with a wide but shockingly short skirt; turns out what I bought was in fact an ice-skating costume very much like this one here:

I had that, the chainmail hood over my bright red hair, and bright red Converse sneakers. My final addition to the ensemble was a pair of white boyshorts on whose ass I wrote “JOAN” in huge red marker. I mean, the skirt was going to fly up, I couldn’t do anything about that, so might as well lean into it, right?

It was a fun Halloween, if I recall – the last time I ever went trick-or-treating. I and my friend Tina were just slightly on the too-old-for-this-shit side at the time, and there were a couple of houses that told us to get lost and leave the candy for the little kids. At these people, I flashed my bright red ass. JOAN, motherfucker.

So I was fond of her in concept. I saw the Wishbone episode, y’know? I had that level of information on the topic. Reading through the transcript now, and then through some surrounding history just to understand what the fuck was going on there, I feel a species of awe and joy. She’s exactly the person I thought she was. So often that’s not true, so often we’re taught a whitewashed version of history and then we read up and find that each and every shiny name has a bloody asterisk next to it. But Jeanne believed what she was saying. It was obvious to everyone around her, and it’s obvious to me just reading her words.

There are so many moments in this transcript and in her life where she expressly rails against what she has to do, says that she wishes she could go home. She doesn’t want to fight – Jeanne says that she’s never killed a man, that she carried her standard into battle with her men, never a sword. She’s afraid, and that’s clear… but she stands her ground with complete, serene conviction anyway. They spent months calling her a liar to her face, but they didn’t execute her because they thought she was lying. They executed her because a fair number of them were sure she DID have divine power – they thought she was the Devil, because of course God couldn’t possibly be on the French side in this war!

I’ve always admired – and envied – her certainty. That conviction that there is meaning and that you are acting in resonance with it… what must it be like to be sure, so sure you’re willing to die for it, that you are worthy and loved? She signed the confession they gave her, but I’m not sure she understood it well – she says she didn’t, and the historical record would indicate that she couldn’t read, so it must have been read to her and the text may not even represent what they said. Anyway, they made her sign a confession, saying that she had been lying and recounting the lot of it.

But two days later she put on the man’s clothing she’d been made to take off, and said that she did not recant. She said she had signed the thing out of fear of her death, but that her “voices” – Saints Catherine and Margaret, usually, sometimes angels – had come to her and told her she must adhere to God’s will, not lie about what she saw. She could have walked away from death right then, and it wouldn’t have made the slightest bit of difference – she was being tried by the English, the enemy nation, what did it matter what they said about her? If she was the power-hungry harridan they tried to paint her as, she could have gone back to France and her army would still have hailed her as a saint, the hell with some English bishops’ kangaroo court.

But she wouldn’t lie. I find that so beautiful. So senseless and beautiful. Like everything.

The morning air is clear and cold today.
I take a breath and hold it on my tongue
until the last bell of prayers has been rung.
Full streets in silence.
I begin to pray.

St. Catherine, St. Margaret, hear me –
at last I shall honor you face to face
at last I shall truly feel your embrace.
Even in my cell you have been near me.

After all, the pyre’s just a pyre,
the wood under my feet is merely wood.
The men in vestments who call me a liar
will look away when they dare spill my blood.
Already my eyes are aiming higher –
the sun’s rising.
Light the flame.
I am good.