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, it 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 weren’t privy, things of which even most shape shifting children hadn’t been privy.
At least that’s how it had been in those days long ago. 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.
She remembered she hadn’t asked him for much, but whenever she did, Father had never denied Oracion anything.
And though Mother had not resisted the idea of a tower bedroom, she balked whenever 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 that 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 Father. Mother also suspected he was up there teaching Oracion the Art of War.
Which he was.
But he 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, and 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 some scone, and she thought them the most gentle and intelligent of all birds, especially compared to the brutish jays.
Father had smiled at her then, then would mention, casually, how shape shifters could even shape themselves into bats, and get up into a turret tower, to frighten little girls. He had teased Oracion relentlessly.
So 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 subject himself to her more worrisome 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.
She remembered Mother’s cloud of dark hair, very 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 simply embroidery, casting a delicate hue.
And though Mother did not laugh all the time, her moods being very delicate, her laugh was one of the things Oracion missed the most. When she did laugh, her laugh had rung out like a transparent chime, up through the castle’s chambers, and sometimes when accompanied with lullaby or tale, had lured Oracion warmly to sleep in that room, in which Oracion had dreamt dreams that princesses can only dream – when they are feeling very safe and secure.
Yes, in time travel Oracion missed Mother’s laugh and those days as deeply as that turret bedroom had been high above all river gorges and blistering mountain heights.
The room itself had been sparsely furnished.
During her night travels when adult Oracion 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 their secret charities were 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 her tiny little soul. She was his verbal dueling and parsing protégée, 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 would share all of them with her in time, because he could refuse her not.
What Oracion didn’t realize then was how much of the light that had burned in Father’s eyes was simply the manifestation of the love he felt for her. She was truly his little ancient Soul, and he often called her this. 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 both of them with all of her heart, mind and strength, and all of that Soul.
“Do not trouble yourself with growing up too quickly, Oracion” Father would advise. “Just think instead of the merriment of the washer woman at the light cast by our candlesticks set upon her table on Feast of Fat Pheasant”.
Oracion would giggle at this, thinking of Fat Pheasant and hopefully, soon to be fat Gilda, the one little boy Gilda had borne who had died, and all the children whom she had since wet nursed. This could constitute the whole, entire village guard, she thought. Father would toss Oracion up upon his shoulders when she made this comment, still laughing, and Oracion would be laughing too, feeling lighter and safer there than even when 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 intelligent but brooding eyes.
It had been a moonless night, with rain coming down in torrential drifts, when Oracion first heard her parents arguing about trikerion candles. She remembered that night well because Noble Beast had not shown up like usual. Noble Beast 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 didn’t 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 hadn’t.
Oracion had not known or cared until now from whence Noble Beast came, because he was yet another one of those things she simply didn’t question, and took for granted in days of sweet cherries, moonlit lessons and the smells of sage and dripping candle wax.
Invisible Oracion moved with emotion into the past and watched as her younger self 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 wasn’t 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 over the other, then twisted down to end in a sharp point. This unique antler formation reminded Oracion of the small crucifix that graced her wall, but even more it reminded her of the cross on the banners the brave warriors carried, family crests with gold lettering hanging down from one side.
It had disturbed her, when she had dreamt of those banners broken, littering the ground, and golden calligraphy stained red.
But now child Oracion was hurrying down the stairs of drafty, stone white passages, until she reached the rooms below. There she momentarily forgot her quest to find Nobel, because Father’s voice from within Mother’s bedchamber was filled with something Oracion identified as pain. She wasn’t used to hearing Father like this, and crept even closer to the closed door, to listen without being observed.
“How can you say this, of what do you speak?” Father was asking Mother. “Why would I take the special candles passed down to me, that which has been consecrated to my Lord? Of what dark deeds do you accuse?”
“If it wasn’t you than it was Priest” Mother stated with a voice that still sounded angry, but very determined now, and colored with urgency.
“Why worry yourself, even if the old man did?” Father queried. “Do we not feed him enough? Don’t we pay him enough, to perform the rites? If the priest has taken trikerions for dark purpose, the candles won’t light, and if he has taken them for good, to bring light to others, then we cannot condemn.”
“We shouldn’t 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, Genessia. The only thieves that can wrongly take things of value are Dream Snatchers. And these 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 the young girl, a chill accompanied by the realization of an evil present, although not yet fully understood.
Though Oracion hadn’t known what these creatures were called, when she heard “Dream Snatchers” she knew of whom Father spoke. But Oracion had thought up to this point that these evil things, these dream stealing creatures, were imaginary, and 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, which she often did – 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 Noble Beast. She had screamed of course when they first appeared and called out for Mother, who would come to her doorway immediately. When Mother appeared the monsters would disappear quite instantaneously, leaving only a swirling, smoky residue behind, as if they’d never been there. Could it be that Dream Snatchers were so frightened by something as pure and beautiful as an Etherate, they couldn’t exist in the same space or time?
“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 really even want to say the word out loud, as if to speak it would hasten their return.
“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, frozen at her parent’s bedchamber door.
Mother knew the truth of what lurked in her bedroom, but perhaps hadn’t wanted to acknowledge their existence to Oracion so as not to frighten her. In seconds Oracion’s mind was spinning, grasping at what could constitute and motivate such vile creatures, and it didn’t take long for her to theorize that they were some form of shape shifter, but with a darkness inside them.
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. 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.
But what had they been originally? What was their natural form?
Time travel to the past can be such a frustrating thing.
For as the Oracion in the present sees the Oracion in the past, forming this plan to catch Dream Snatchers, it is as if suddenly time starts to speed up. Walls start aging with decay, their crumbling stones tumbling out, and archways fade in and out, then dissolve 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 in the castle and watch. She has long since earned her sword.
The sound of rushing in the ears again and she is back in the past. But as usual, Oracion has lost a segment of time, skipped right over it like a section of ink on parchment too wet and blurry to read, and now she is young and in her bed again 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 tears. The sight of her father crying moves child Oracion to much love and she calls him “Daddy” this time, instead of the usual Father. Looking up, she also notices what looks like horrible wounds about his neck, as if rows of sharp blades had been pressed into the weather-tanned skin, and at intervals pierced it.
So she lays her small, child hand upon the bruises, as if her touch could heal, and asks “Daddy, what’s wrong? What happened?”
Oracion has seen this scene too many times.
It hurts and she doesn’t want to see it again. Moreover, she knows she must go even further back into the past to find what she missed, what she’s lost, and realize 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. Presence, be near!) and then she’s back to the deleted time frame, when it is not raining at all. Father is not there either. Oracion is in her own bedroom, and a hideous Dream Snatcher, half crouched, encircles her bed.
“Mother, come help me, quick!”
The Etherate appears almost instantly, disheveled in such radiant beauty that perhaps – if Oracion had been a bit older – she would have suspected her cries interrupted Mother and Father in lovemaking.
When the frightening beast disappears, Oracion waits only until her mother leaves her room as well.
Then 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 cloak, crimson red, sweeping dust as it disappears down the stairs.
Back in her room, the Dream Snatcher’s residue is still visible, dusty entrails one would not wish to inhale.
So over to the window young Oracion scurries, hoping to watch as the Dream Snatcher flees. 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 still 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. Her face is that of the Dream Snatcher.
She opens her jaws wide as if to devour the wiry little man with long, fierce teeth, but instead slowly leans her gaping mouth close to breathe Oracion’s dreams into the greedy priest’s ear. After receiving the vapor, he 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 out through the castle gates to attack 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 alerts 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 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, 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