I gotta get back at the Shadowplay rewrite, if only because the world is always and perpetually lacking for decent queer love stories and erotica, and Keshena is a person who, ahem… gets around. She has some of the same issues relating to women that I do, obviously, as she’s the poor puppet I invented to try out all my neuroses on. This one is from her perspective, but it has some of my own wistfulness in it.
Sometimes – especially if you are, like most of our congregants, a little fucked-up – and please, join the cult, take a taco – sometimes, you feel like the kindest thing you can do is spare someone the burden of knowing you. Sometimes you meet someone so arresting that all you can think is, “If I touch that, I’m gonna ruin it.” When you encounter someone from outside your little bubble of trauma and toxic people and mental illness, someone who doesn’t live in that world, you feel like a filthy animal on someone’s white carpet, terrified to move in case you destroy everything you touch.
I stayed away from women for a long time because I felt like that. It seemed like my love did people harm. An old friend who didn’t make it out of the Well once aimed a finger and a Texan laugh at me and said, “You got a head fulla bad machinery, darlin’.” And I do. This old thing don’t work right, and it will definitely leave oil stains on your sheets.
The fact is, it can be shocking to see a wound. Most people don’t like to without a little bit of warning. But it doesn’t harm them to see it, and it isn’t a sin to share your pain with someone, so long as they consent. In the words of Spider Robinson, trouble shared is trouble halved. When I am brave enough to stay, to be honest, to be naked… generally people aren’t as scared of what they see as I thought they’d be. Generally they’re a lot less scared of what I have hidden than I am.
Eyes on the ground, my creaking back is bent from rolling stones down the hill behind me, burning memories so they can’t find me. But somehow, I sense this dream is different.
The ground is sticky for creatures like me. This craft can only get airborne one time. Just take your moment when our wings align, and slip into the next cheap memory.
What if we were to stay this time instead? What if we made a promise that we kept? What if when the lady wakes up in bed she isn’t alone with the tears she wept – not just another notch above our head not to retreat when we’re out of our depth?
I was free associating and then my lady got in the way, as she’s been doing the last few days. One thing I like about our relationship is that I’ve always felt she looked at me the way one would look at, say, a very interesting and entirely new insect: with bewilderment, amusement, and a tendency to trail vaguely after, taking notes. The funny thing is, I look at her in sort of the same way, but from a different angle.
Now that’s an interesting thought, isn’t it? The behavior of a disciple has a great deal in common with the behavior of a scientist. Much has already been made, by smarter people than me, of the comparison between a religious person’s faith and a scientist’s sometimes equally dogmatic adherence to his own hierarchical structures and unexamined biases. I’m not trying to be that critical. I’m thinking of something more… emotional.
The way a scientist trails after a fascinating specimen, noting its every characteristic, trying to absorb and learn with each moment… much like an apostle, attending his lord’s every word and gesture, no? It’s all just forms and permutations of devotion, fascination, attraction. When you fix your eyes and find so much to feast on that you never want to move them again. When you see the work of understanding this creature laid out before you, a thousand lifetimes long, and feel nothing but a ravenous hunger to begin.
I’ve been watching her a very long time, and now everything is new. I feel like something with wings, shackled underground for an age, finally, abruptly, freed… staggering into the sun, pale as a gasp and trembling, wondering if it’ll ever fly again. These muscles long ago learned to keep their place. It will be hard to learn that I’m allowed to look at her, to linger. Hard to learn that more than a moment’s accidental touch isn’t blasphemous. It’s all so bright and clear and beautiful that it hurts, brings tears to my eyes every few minutes. I want to forget about the withered, scarred thing I became in her absence. Don’t mind my stumbling. I’ll be right with you. I just need a little moment to remember how to walk.
Look around and see the stars in the walls try to hold their positions in your mind. You’ll need to be able to do this blind – when we get back there’ll be no light at all.
Three fingers like a compass on your chest describe curves and lines, geometry entirely unique to you and me, lists of new hypotheses to test.
Like glancing between the sun and the black I must unlearn the habits of a thief – take looks at you like you’ll make me put them back Slowly transmuting faith into belief. A lifetime spent stretched on you like a rack and still my strength is beggared by relief.
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.”
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.
Don’t strain yourself reading into this, I’ll just tell you – it’s a metaphor for anxiety. That’s what it is. I’m anxious and thinking about sea urchins and writhing clenching things in my belly.
The tide goes out again, and leaves behind a pack of things that should by rights have shells prefer to be protected by the swells They find the naked sun and air unkind.
The smaller ones still have something like legs, bring water to creatures drowning in air, dredge up the sand and rebury them there, dig shallow channels for never-seen eggs.
From a distance, the largest looks like hair. Up close, it’s a million writhing sinews, each one knotted up and down and into the convulsing mass, each one strangled there. Only got larger when the sea withdrew, clenching ever tighter as the sun stares.
Lot of people from my generation – Millennials, there-I-said-it – tend to say that they don’t have good luck. That, and… how do I put this… trauma attracts trauma? Not always in a negative sense, just, you surround yourself with people who understand what you’re going through, and the ones who stick around will be the ones who can hang when your life gets deeply fucked. Some people interpret this pattern – Party Acquired! Oh wait, rocks fall, all die – as bad luck.
I don’t, really. I think that the rocks falling, the goblin invasions, the bad credit, the abortions, the birthing and dying and all the other adventures… they’re adventures, which means most of them are going to be primarily a sequence of bad shit happening to people who don’t deserve it. Maybe you, maybe someone you love, definitely at least once in your life. That’s not luck. A lot of times it’s the way the game is designed.
Luck comes into it when you roll initiative, when you decide whether you’re okay with that sequence of bad shit, and if you’re not, how deep you’re ready to roll on putting a stop to it. Sometimes you win. If you don’t play a lot, you’ll get the feeling that you win about 50%. About a crapshoot. The effect of luck takes longer than the occasional flutter to perceive.
Luck is about repetition. Luck is about trying, and trying, and trying until one day, something’s different. For no good reason, just because it was time, because you showed up and tried every time and this time was the one time. Yeah, you see the people on TV who won the lottery because they got a Powerball ticket in a birthday card, never gambled before, but the reason those stories blow up is because they’re astonishing. Most of the time, the guy who hits the jackpot is the guy who’s spent $6,000 at the slot machine this winter. That’s how odds work. The more you play, the more opportunity you have to make them better.
Everywhere I go, I try doors. Just turn handles in walls, all of ’em, any of ’em. It’s a policy. See a door, think of it, give it a try. You’d be shocked how many things are unlocked that probably shouldn’t be. People see me open the steel door behind which a treasure trove of brooms and cleaning products hides, and they call me lucky. They didn’t see all the other locked doors I’ve tried since I was tall enough to reach the handles.
Getting better, healing from trauma, is in my experience very much like that. You have to do something that they tell you will work for a long time, watching it not fucking work, before it even kinda works. I know I’m saying “a long time,” and you’re hearing me, but I heard that too, and I was underestimating how long. It’s longer than you think. There will be a moment when you go, “This was supposed to help me, this was supposed to feel good, I was supposed to be getting better, I’ve wasted all this effort, I know it’s supposed to take a long time but surely I’m doing it wrong if it’s not helping by now.” The point when it starts actually helping, in my experience, is two weeks to a month after that.
You have to stick with it. You have to be willing to roll deep. You have to be ready to fail again and again and again and call the one time in a hundred that you succeed “good luck.” Because that’s how you keep getting luck: by rolling the dice.
Always said that I’m a lucky person. What you’ve got to understand about luck is that you need to stop passing the buck – luck’s not a judgment, it’s an assertion.
They say that luck is when preparation meets opportunity. What they don’t say is that preparation gets in the way and good luck comes from repetition.
Everything takes just a little too long before it starts to function like it should. You have to punch a lot of planks of wood; it stops hurting only after you get strong. But it never hurts quite like the fear could, and each scar speaks more clearly: we belong.
My sweet ones, to you I have sworn the truth, and so I offer it: my head is not in the game. I’m slippin, if I’m honest, and I was not prepared to battle today. Can I just keep listening to hiphop and daydreaming about beautiful girls talking about their Ph.Ds instead?
I wrote you something kinda weird about nightmares and masks. Imagine the little dudes at the end of Majora’s Mask, each of them wearing the mask of one of the bosses, and asking you probing psychological questions. Those little kids fucked me up proper. They’re still in my head, bopping around, asking questions.
We’re all such well-behaved little nightmares, not one with even a hair out of place, each one practicing their predator face, selecting the most perfect mask to wear.
A couple of the little ones get stuck and tumble down into the humans’ dreams. They find it’s colder in there than it seems – and then they think it’s more than just bad luck.
But the ones that make it through are colder. They wrap themselves up in gears and wires, make their escape, igniting small fires, leaving behind a snail’s trail of solder. It gets to be baseboard, but no higher – nightmares never grow very much older.
Oh, child… I feel dizzy, like I’ve had a couple of punches to the head. Love always makes me feel that way. Love likes to rough me up and leave me bleeding in alleys. It’s cool; it’s all consensual, that’s what I’m into. If my life doesn’t scar me I assume I’m not doing it right.
There’s this girl. I know, I know, another one? This is a different girl, even though the story has some marked similarities. Listen, I used to be really bad about falling in love with straight girls, okay? I’ve gotten better; I try to only let my infatuations get out of hand with the willing these days.
This girl is even harder for me to talk about, because the way I feel about her is so hard to put into words. I felt it from the second I met her – like a dislocated limb pushed back into place, a sense of recognition so acute it was painful. She didn’t feel the same, or she hid it well; I used to joke that we became friends because I interrupted her reading and refused to go away until she talked to me.
She’s always hidden how she feels well, from everyone. I’ve seen more than anyone else, but I have this particular blind spot where people’s feelings about me are concerned. So does she. Our blind spots intersect very neatly, such that we’ve been missing one another for a lot of years.
For so many years I’ve been crying thinking of her, of what I did to her. Nothing ever hurt as much as losing her. I went through plenty of heartbreak in the intervening time, with people on whom I had more claim and more right to grieve – people I lived with, slept with for years – and none of it cut deep enough to really hurt me. I couldn’t understand why for a long time, but now I think I do.
When I walked away from her, I gave up on that part of myself. Not consciously, I don’t think – I never swore off dating women, I went on identifying as bisexual, even fucked a few women over the years, but no one more than once. There were no women in my life at all for more than a decade. I’ve got a couple of female friends now, but that’s new, just in the last year. For about sixteen years I just avoided women entirely. Until she came back into my life, I thought I couldn’t feel that way anymore. Maybe my parents were right, maybe it was a phase. Everybody looks at women like that sometimes. Everybody has a bi phase in college. Settle down and get married to a penis-haver like a good girl.
Obedient creature that I am, I did get married. In fact, she married me – just not the way I hoped when I was sixteen. She was the officiant at my wedding. I needed her to be there, couldn’t imagine getting married without her. I never dreamed it would cause her pain – I’d concluded when we were nineteen that she wasn’t interested, that this bone-deep hunger I feel around her was entirely one-sided. That didn’t do a damn thing to make it go away, mind, but I’d long ago got comfortable with that ache.
It makes me feel foolish, in the best way, that it takes so little, the merest hint that she wants me around, and… god. My head feels like it’s on fire. It’s such a strange kind of tenderness I feel – more visceral than precisely erotic, because I had forbidden myself to think that way about her, and so every innocuous touch always hit me like a live wire. I remember one morning when I was about fifteen, waking up at a sleepover on the floor, with one arm around her. She was wearing a t-shirt that had ridden up some, and my fist was resting against her bare belly.
Slowly, so slowly, I spread out my fingers to lay my hand flat on her skin. Just that. It wasn’t a move, I didn’t have anything else in mind, I didn’t even know why – why I needed so much to do it, or why I felt such shame and self-loathing when I did. It felt holy – her skin as cool as marble, so still I could feel her heartbeat, the morning sun spilling over her shoulder. I lay there and felt adoration ricocheting through me, like a swallowed bullet, tearing up my insides with the effort to keep still, to preserve this moment for just another breath. And yet I was so ashamed. I felt sure it was wrong, I was wrong somehow. I knew I was trespassing, and I didn’t know why.
I never stopped thinking about that. I never stopped waiting for the day when I could be close to her and feel like she wanted me there. That’s all I ever wanted – to be with her and know that I’m welcome, that in her eyes, I belong there.
I recall every time I’ve touched your skin and my skin prickles with the memory, holding my breath to keep you next to me, feeling the fragile moment stretch and thin
Your pulse is a cacophony under my fingertips – it makes me want to weep, to be so close to something I can’t keep – drowning in my own heartbeat, like thunder.
For a moment I imagine a tree growing from my sternum, up through your spine, millions of roots between your heart and mine finally able to see what you see – roots that only grow deeper over time, roots that will always bring you home to me.
I think there are going to be illustrations for these at some point – I’ve been messing with some pen-and-ink styles, trying to figure out a good, clear way to draw the more text-heavy parts of Sects. It miiiiight not surprise you to learn that I was really into Edward Gorey’s books as a kid? So with these little couplets, please imagine a Gorey-esque macabre alphabet in dense Victorian style. But, like, Gorey drawings as executed by a drunken cockatiel flapping up and down, shedding feathers and drool, gripping a pen in one spasming zygodactyl claw. That’s about what you can expect from me.
Black cat catches fire on the staircase – who knew you could train a cat for arson? The culprit escapes, after a fashion – only its yowl makes it out of the place.
Every new moon, flyers blanket the front door, the branded wings of bats crisscrossed with scars, the logos of local churches and bars – some of those places aren’t there anymore.
The house next door has begun to erode – every morning there’s a little bit less. Might be the termites at the dryads’ place. The Wooden Girls, of course, claimed not to know, but then we saw their mother’s writhing dress, the masochistic pleasure on her face.
My stories are often accumulations of images and characters, because one of the ways I amuse myself and torment others is by trying to combine incompatible concepts and ideas. This is one of the earliest images that spawned what’s become Bluebird: a dream I had years ago about a girl running ahead of a tidal wave, setting the crops on fire.
Little Animal running through the wheat far enough below to silence her shout She stamps and leaps to drive the vermin out, to start a great stampede of tiny feet.
Behind her, smoke rises to clot the sky. To the east, the cliffs as sheer as black glass To the west, the sea retreats from the grass into a wave one hundred meters high.
Little Animal runs from the water. When fire supersedes everyone’s roles, predator and prey look up from the slaughter. Chasing the unknowing birds from their holes, she sets the fields afire behind her. On the horizon, the wave starts to roll.