Beware then of useless murmuring,
and keep your tongue from slander;
because no secret word is without result,
and a lying mouth destroys the soul.
Wisdom of Solomon
Do not fear the Opposite
The dark that steals the dream
Man cannot reverse the flow
Of river, gorge or stream
Song of the Washer Woman
When the Presence allowed it, Oracion could travel into the past.
On these nights she often found herself in the upper chamber of the castle turret, looking for Mother and something else she had lost there, a long time ago.
This room had served as Oracion’s bedchamber when she was just a little girl, in the days before Mother was taken. Oracion had begged Father to let her sleep in the attic, for the moonlight shining through the small window there was beguiling. Because Oracion was closer to the moon in a turret bedroom, the moon would cast enchanted lunar reflections and shadows within – all throughout the night – of which Oracion had learned many things. She learned things of which most children were not privy, things of which even most shape shifting children had not been privy.
At least that’s how it had been in those days of old. In modern times the moon drew closer to earth to educate all of the young, as if in compensation for the stars which had been lost, burnt out in their orbits or cast to the ground.
But in days of old, on certain summer evenings, Father would allow Oracion to accompany him through the small trap door and winding turn of stairs that led from her bedroom to the open roof top above, and she relived all of this now. He and daughter would spend long hours in contemplation studying the landscape below from the advantage of height, moonlight and crenellation.
Oracion remembered she hadn’t asked him for much in those days, but Father had never denied her anything either.
Mother had not resisted the idea of a tower bedroom, but she balked when Father took Oracion to the roof. Oracion saw again her face, tinged with a delicate pink, demanding “Whose idea was this?!” It was as if Oracion was a fragile possession not safe in her father’s presence, and would somehow plummet from the castle rooftop to the ground below, in some unforeseen accident or unexplainable turn of events, that Mother would inevitably blame on the castle guards. Mother also suspected that Father was up there teaching Oracion the Art of War.
Which he was.
But Father was just giving her the Early Lessons, which consisted of maps, animals and flowers, and in particular the types of birds. He would tell Oracion how the shifters would shape themselves into the humbler varieties – shore bird, sparrow, turtle dove – to go unnoticed among the enemy.
“I would want to be a sparrow, or a dove” Oracion had announced, for these creatures had several times landed in her hand for a crumble of scone, and she thought them the most genteel, much less ignorant than, for example, the Jay.
Father had smiled at her then, saying shape shifters could even shape themselves into bats, and get up into a turret tower, to frighten little girls. He had teased her relentlessly.
Mother was correct in many things of which she suspected Father, but wrong in so many others, and Oracion grieved for he who had loved Mother from the beginning and therefore had to willingly subject himself to fearful imaginings.
For Mother was one of the Beautiful Ones, an Etherate, who would not become tame in any fashion or sense of the word, whose noble northern heritage would beguile any man, or make anyone love her, just as the moon had inevitably enchanted Oracion in the attic room.
Oracion remembered her mother’s cloud of dark hair (much like her own) and eyes as blue and twinkling as the clearest spring water, laughing and flowing through a river gorge. She smelled of honeysuckle, baking flour and sometimes a sweet smoky scent that reminded Oracion of fire from an evening hearth. She graciously swept through the castle in velvet slippers and flowing patterns of rose, gold brocade and lace. Oracion remembered now that Mother had always been conscious of the dust Oracion’s skirts collected, as Oracion ran laughing and tumbling through heath and heather, but laughed off the dust that collected on her own as if it was just added embroidery, casting a delicate hue.
Mother’s laugh had rung out like a transparent chime up, up through the castle’s chambers, and sometimes when accompanied with lullaby or tale, lured Oracion warmly to sleep in that bedroom, in which Oracion had dreamt dreams that only protected princesses dream.
Which she was.
And in time travel Oracion missed Mother and those days as deeply as that turret bedroom had been high above all river gorges and blistering mountain heights.
The room had been sparsely furnished.
During her night travels when she returned there invisibly she would find the same small bed beside a rarely lit hearth, fur rugs, rolls of parchment and scattered orange peel, a single crucifix being one of the few adornments against vast stone wall. This was because of Father’s penchant for giving things away. Oracion had shared the compulsion, and this was another thing that Oracion feared would drive a wedge between Father and his Etherate Bride, when she was just a little girl.
Father would laugh at such concerns, the adult ones young Oracion had voiced to him in those days, throwing his head back in amusement at the ancientness of such a tiny soul. She was his verbal dueling and parsing protégée before she had barely reached five, and was only too eager to trade in her words for a sword, so she could become a brave warrior like him. His dark brown eyes would study her and twinkle at her with a lucidity that surpassed even mother’s blue ones. This suggested to her he possessed secrets so deep and elusive they were like that of the moon’s, and she hoped he was going to share all of them with her, because he could refuse her not.
What Oracion did not realize was how much of the light that had burned in Father’s eyes was the outward manifestation of the intense love he felt for her. She was truly his Little Ancient Soul. How bittersweet this made Oracion feel now, recalling what she had taken for granted, or not even noticed, even though she had been ever vigilant, loving Father with all of her heart, mind and strength, and all of that soul.
“Do not trouble yourself with growing up too quickly, Oracion” he had advised. “Just think instead of the merriment of the washer woman at the light cast by our candlesticks at Feast of Fat Pheasant”.
Oracion would giggle at this, thinking of Fat Pheasant and soon to be fat Gilda, the twelve children she had borne, the three who had died, and all the children whom Gilda had wet nursed, which could constitute the whole entire village guard. Father would toss Oracion up upon his shoulders in this moment, still laughing, and Oracion would be laughing too, feeling lighter and safer there than if they stood on the turret landing, surveying the landscape below.
But perhaps Gilda’s new fortune was why Mother had accused Father of stealing the trikerion lamps from the chapel priest in the first place, the prelate with the dark brown hooding and wise but brooding eyes that Oracion respected, but somehow still feared.
It had been a moonless night, with rain coming down in torrential drifts, when Oracion had first heard her parents arguing about trikerion candles. She remembered that night well because Noble Beast had not shown up like he usually did. He showed up whenever it was raining or the moon was obscured by shadow or snow.
Oracion had awakened because of the pounding of rain against glass and her parent’s angry voices from the chambers below, but this did not disturb her as much as the absence of The Creature. She had glanced about the room, half expecting to see Noble come padding silently towards her on his huge, hairy Beast Feet, beseeching her with sad eyes until she allowed him the pleasure of sleeping at her own.
But he had not.
Oracion had not known or cared until now from whence Noble Beast came, because he was yet another one of those things she simply did not question, and took for granted in those days of sweet cherries, moonlit lessons and the smells of sage and dripping candle wax.
Invisible Oracion moved with emotion into the past now and watched as a younger Oracion arose from the bed, not bothering to slipper her feet, seeking instead the creature she loved like a childhood pet to warm them. But he was not really a dog. Noble Beast (which is just what Oracion called him) was very much like an oversized German Shepherd, yet not quite canine, because he had two antlers that emerged from his head in such a fashion that one bent across the other, then twisted down once again to end in a sharp point. This unique antler formation had reminded Oracion of the small crucifix that graced her wall, but even more it reminded her of the cross banners the brave warriors carried, with the family crest with gold lettering hanging down from one side.
It disturbed her, the drawings she had seen of those crosses and banners broken, littering the ground, golden calligraphy now stained red.
So Oracion hurried down stairs of drafty white stone passage, until she reached the rooms below. There she momentarily forgot her quest to find her beloved Nobel, because Father’s voice from behind Mother’s bedchamber was filled with something Oracion identified as pain. She was not used to hearing Father like this. Little Oracion crept even closer to the closed door, to listen without being observed.
“Desirous, how can you say this, of what do you speak?” Father was asking Mother. “Why would I take treasures from my own chapel passed down to me from my father before me, and his father before him, that which has been consecrated to my Lord? Of what dark deeds do you accuse?”
“If it was not you than it was Priest” Mother stated with a voice that still sounded angry, but now determined, and colored with urgency.
“Why worry yourself, even if the old man did?” Father queried. “Do we not feed him enough? Do we not pay him enough, to perform the rites? If the priest has taken trikerions for dark purpose, the candles will not light, and if he has taken them for good, to bring light to others, then we cannot condemn.”
“We should not tolerate a thief in our house for any reason” Mother insisted, and Father must have come to her then, consolingly, for after a moment of silence his voice grew softer still. Oracion had to press her ear against the door to hear it.
But what Father said then frightened Oracion to the quick.
“There now, there now, you know the truth, Desirous. The only thieves that can take things of value are the Dream Snatchers. And those I will never allow in my house, I promise you.”
Upon hearing this declaration from her father’s lips, a chill had gone down the spine of young Oracion, only worse than a chill, for it was the Feeling of Evil Present, although not yet quite understood.
Though Oracion had not known what these creatures were called before, when she heard “Dream Snatchers” she knew something about whom Father spoke. But Oracion had thought up to this point in time that these evil things, these dream stealing creatures, were just imaginary, not a real threat to anyone’s well-being.
And she had been calling them Opposites.
She called them Opposites because when she woke to find them silently prowling about the side of her bed – sinewy, dark, smoky creatures – which were part smoke, part human and part beast, drooling and smacking their lips grotesquely as if to devour her, they reminded her in an Opposite Way of her Noble Beast. She had screamed of course when they appeared and called out for Mother, who came to her doorway almost immediately in rescue. When Mother appeared the monsters would disappear instantaneously, leaving only a swirling, smoky residue behind, as if so frightened by something as pure and beautiful as an Etherate, they could not exist in the same space.
“Where did they go?” Oracion had asked.
“Where did what go?” Mother would ask.
“Opposites” Oracion would say, her voice still trembling. She didn’t even want to say the word out loud. “Evil…evil…”
“Silly child,” Mother would say “Opposites are just your imagination. You don’t see them here now with us, do you?”
No wonder Mother worried about her well-being, Oracion thought to herself, frozen at her parent’s bedchamber door. Mother knew the truth of what lurked in Oracion’s bedroom, but had not wanted to frighten the little girl. In seconds Oracion’s mind was spinning, grasping at what could constitute such vile creatures, and it didn’t take long for the little girl to theorize that they were some form of shape shifter, but with darkness of soul.
If this was true, than Oracion knew what she must do, but it would take the courage of a brave warrior, not just a princess, so the time for her to evolve was now. She had to see where the monstrous creatures went when they disappeared at Mother’s entrance, next time they invaded her room. For as long as smoky exhaust still lingered and swirled it suggested Dream Snatchers could not leave castle grounds quickly. Oracion wondered what they cloaked themselves into next, perhaps a malformed grape vine to climb down and out her window, or a deformed animal – part pig and part goat – howling in agony at a turret moon, which would be way too bright for their weak and watery eyes to tolerate for long.
Time travel to the past can be such a fascinating but frustrating thing.
For as the Oracion in the present sees the Oracion in the past, forming this plan to catch Dream Snatchers in action, it is as if time starts to speed up. Stone walls start decaying, first solid then crumbling, loose stones tumbling out in random fashion from their sockets, archways fading in and out, then dissolving altogether into translucent, arched tree branches, which in turn are becoming more and more solid over her head, until Oracion can see the morning light of present filtering through.
No, she must stay here in the castle and watch. She has long since earned her pennant sword.
The sound of rushing in the ears again and she is back in the past. But as usual, she has lost a segment of time, skipped over it like a section of ink on parchment too wet and blurry to read, and now little Oracion is in her bed being woken by something wet upon her arm.
Is the window open, and rain coming in?
No, it is Father, holding her in his arms, and the raindrops were not raindrops nor moistened, faded parchment but his tears, which she has never seen before. The sight of him crying moves her to such love she calls him “Daddy” this time, instead of the usual Father. Looking up at him, she also notices what looks like horrible wounds about his neck, as if rows of sharp blades have been pressed into the weather-tanned skin, and at intervals pierced it. She lays her soft child hand upon the bruises gently, as if the touch of her hand could heal, and asks “Daddy, what’s wrong? What happened?”
Oracion has seen this scene too many times.
It hurts and she does not want to see it again. But she knows she must go even further back to find what she missed, what she has lost, and realize again what she needs to realize. (Rushing, rushing, the sound of rushing in her ears like a pressure, a frightening wind, driving rain against turret glass, Divine Presence be with me!) and then she is still in that room but back to the deleted time frame, when it is not raining at all. Father is not there either, and instead the hideous Dream Snatchers half crouched, encircle her bed.
“Mother, come help me, quick!”
The Etherate appears moments later, disheveled in such radiant beauty that perhaps – if Oracion had been a bit older – she would have suspected her cries interrupted Mother in act of her brother’s conception.
When the beasts disappear Oracion waits only until her mother leaves as well.
She gets out of bed and peeks out from below the open archway that constitutes her bedroom door, just in time to catch a glimpse of the tale end of Mother’s evening cloak, crimson red, sweeping dust as it disappears down the stairs. Back in her room, the Dream Snatcher’s residue is still visible, like dusty entrails which one would not wish to inhale.
So over to the window young Oracion scurries, hoping to watch as the Dream Snatchers flee. This time the moon is quite full, illuminating everything below it, the extended drawbridge and finally the figure that emerges upon it, to meet Priest, who has strangely been waiting there all along.
But it is only Mother, in her crimson red cloak, the figure that emerges from the castle. Mother’s hood is drawn up around her face like Priest’s brown one, and despite the moon and the brilliancies of color, Oracion marvels at how similar in this night the two hooded figures appear. However, when the priest removes his hood, and Mother in like fashion removes her own, there is no trouble making distinctions between them.
Mother’s face is hideous now, perhaps not even human.
It is that of a Dream Snatcher.
She opens her jaws wide as if to devour him with her long, fierce teeth, but instead slowly leans her gaping mouth close to breathe something into the greedy man’s ear. After receiving the vapor, Priest removes what he has brought hidden from beneath his garments, a trikerion lamp, and hands it to Mother, who enfolds it into her own.
Oracion is so stunned she cannot move or speak, and it is only when she sees Noble Beast come charging swiftly out through the castle gates towards the Dream Snatcher, and watches horrifying movements of flying fur and teeth too rapid to mentally contemplate, then Noble’s neck being pinioned and tightly clenched in her own mother’s jaws, that Oracion can scream at all.
The child’s cry alert the beasts. They pause in one, simultaneous motion to look up at her, and in another instance, are gone. Both beasts have vanished, and now Priest alone stares up at Oracion with eyes still quite human, but as cold and dead as the stones in her tower bedroom wall.
All that remains of Mother is the swirling, dark smoky residue at his feet.
It takes another moment for Oracion to realize that her hands are clutching the window ledge so tightly that they hurt painfully, until she realizes they are not hands at all anymore, but the tiny feet of a small sandpiper bird. For through the intensity of her emotions she has awoken her first transformation, but has not yet achieved sparrow or dove.
In this moment Oracion is just a ground bird, trapped way up high on a ledge.
Song of the Washer Woman, Verse II
Do not fear the Opposite
Who dies not out through blood
Though blood is red as roses are
Life forms but through its bud