But it’s important also to remember that bleeding, in and of itself, is not a sacrificial act. Blood is an important part of enacting any ritual, and The Ritual of 1977 was so close I could taste it. But I still had so much to do. Which leads me to the fourth aspect of any ritual:
Part IV. Enactment
But enactment isn’t so simple as a matter of just doing it. It, in turn, had four substantive elements that led to it:
Experimentation: I remember that right after the phone call to Victor, I found that I was thinking of what it took to seduce someone. I lay in bed that night thinking about it — when I finally got over being frightened, and actually went to bed. I thought of what it takes to truly make another person beholden to you in that way. I realized that there must be intent, of course. Design. And that there must be desire. And supplication; that part was essential. Supplication got me thinking. About Victor — who he was, and why he behaved the way he did. With just one phone call and one meeting, I hadn’t had a lot of exposure to him to work out what made him tick. But I knew the next-day meeting we’d agreed to on the phone would have to work entirely in my favor. So, I remember, I lay awake and thought about Victor Marsh. And how to seduce him. I realized that I would have to set about seducing Victor Marsh in much the same way I did Reggie Peak and Deacon Ripp. The basic structure of a seduction was fairly uniform. But how seduction is handled varies greatly for every person — both in terms of the seducer and in the mind of the one who is seduced. There’s mutuality in seduction. For Deacon, it was a matter of offering enough transitory pleasures — food, toys; his was a trivial mind. For Reggie, it was about convincing him that the rules of this world did not apply to him — to tell him that he was different, unique, special. His was a fearful mind. But I didn’t yet fully know as I lie there what kind of mind Victor had. So I thought of the way he’d stood there in the kitchen, and how he’d tried to puff up when meeting me for the first time. But I also thought of how willing he was to spend time with me when I’d been frightened, on the phone, without there being any gain to him. I thought about every detail of those two interactions with Victor. And I developed the theory that, perhaps, his was a lonely mind above everything else. A mind that craved other people. That any kind of attention, good or bad, might feed something he hungered for — perhaps without him even understanding it. Of course, young adolescents are often prone to that kind of thinking, whether it’s their dominant process or not. But it made sense for Victor to not want to be alone; and, it might even explain his babysitting Reggie. It was a workable theory, for the moment. But I realized I would have to set about proving it to myself. To test him. So I did just that. I watched the front of the Liongold, from across the street and down a ways, until I saw Victor Marsh amble up to the theater. I watched him as he nervously looked around, hands stuffed in his pants pockets. I watched as he leaned against the Liongold’s side wall, at the corner that was nearest the alley where I’d recently met Deacon. Victor kept casting his gaze back and forth, behind him, off to the sides, as if he’d tried to position himself at just the right vantage to catch me the moment I came into view. He was clearly expectant — and maybe a little nervous I wouldn’t show up. But he needn’t have worried. I needed him. I’d dressed in a summery blouse and a shorter skirt than I needed it to be. Homemade clothes, to speak to him of earthiness and humility. You got the feeling around Victor, back then, that he would’ve hated it if people tried to look genuinely impressive. I suspect he may have thought that made him humble, but I also suspect that he subconsciously didn’t like sharing attention with anyone who actually had the spotlight other than him — if my theory I was testing was correct, anyway. And testing that theory meant walking up to him slowly, affecting a cautious gait, as if I was still frightened from the night before. For the sake of posterity, I’ll share with you a little of how that first meeting went:
He caught sight of me before I’d even crossed the street. “Hilda!” he called, waving, lifting himself up off from where he’d been leaning against the corner of the wall. “Hey — Hilda!’ He waved again.
I didn’t answer until I’d reached the sidewalk of the Liongold’s side of the street. I’d worked to keep my face impassive until then. I watched his expression, taking note as he got more nervous the longer I went without speaking. Finally, I decided to acknowledge him. “Hello, Victor,” I said. I reached my hand up and gave him a finger wave. I smiled.
He brightened almost instantly. “And hello, to you, too,” he said — in the exact same tone of voice he’d used back at Reggie’s house.
“I’m sorry I’m late. I overslept.”
“Aw, don’t worry about it.” He grinned a little shyly. “You look well-rested, though. That’s good.”
“Yeah,” I said, affecting a sigh. I paused, then lowered my head. Then I looked up at him with just my eyes. “Thanks to you.” I looked away, as if a little shy myself. “You helped me calm down,” I added, to break the moment’s power. I didn’t want my efforts to be too obvious. But, at the same timer, Victor Marsh was an adolescent boy — so I knew I had to be broad for him to notice in the short time I had. “I feel like I owe you something,” I said, still not looking at him. “I want to repay you.”
“Well, shoot,” Victor said. “You don’t have to do anything like that. I’m cool about it, if you are.”
“No, no,” I said. “I feel like I owe you for gallantry or something.”
He laughed nervously.
An awkward silence followed. I broke it. “So, let’s call you ‘Sir Victor,'” I said, pretending to laugh at my own silliness.
“Uhhhhh … ” Then, he shrugged then shook his head. “Nah.”
“Victor the Great?”
He shook his head, snorting out a laugh, looking away from me, bashfully.
“Well, I have to knight you. So what do I call you?”
“Hey — how ’bout just, you know, ‘friends?'”
“Okay. And what do you demand as a boon?”
“What’s a boon?”
“A prize a knight gets.”
He blinked. “Ummm — oh! I got it.” He grinned. “Hanging out with me for a little bit. That’s my charge for my knighthood.”
“I’m okay with that.”
“Trust me, Victor — we’re going to have a blast. Do you trust me?” I made it a game at first, eyeing him with pretended suspicion. “I need you to trust me.”
“I trust you, Hilda,” he said.
And it was just that easy. Having it spoken slowly makes it so. We spent the rest of the day together. Over its, I kept testing him. I would pause for just a little too long, watching as his face would change in ways I suspect he might not even have realized. I rewarded him for attentive responses — with smiles, and genial flattery. Everything fit my suspicions. He needed other people. Desperately. But he’d worked up enough shields and guards in his life to be able to not show it. All under a veneer of a good-natured loner. Which was something I could exploit. And I did. I met with him again the next day. And again. Each time, I withheld just long enough to make him crave more. And each time I said it: “Do you trust me? I need you to trust me.” Making it less of a game each time.
“I trust you, Hilda,” he’d say.
Analysis: My theory had yielded a positive result. But I had to consider what the results meant. In this case, I realized that the results I was getting were, yes, helping me — but they were also training Victor. People, as a rule, fail to understand how training animals works. They believe in the axiom that a rat goes through the maze to get the cheese. But that isn’t how it really works. The scientist hides the cheese behind the maze. The scientist makes the cheese harder and harder to get each time he expands the maze. The scientist tests the limits of the rat’s willingness to do the work to get the cheese. But there’s even more to it than that. The scientist does not consider the rat a partner, any more than you would expect for the scientist to consider the cheese that way. The rat and the cheese are components, and it’s the scientists job to wring the data from that. The scientist does not consult the rat on how the rat wants to be treated. The scientist does not consider the rat’s feelings. The scientist also does not give the rat a credit on the … well, whatever you call the paperwork scientists dole out to the public. They usually just say ‘paper,’ don’t they? The rat doesn’t get a name on the paper. The details of what happened with Victor couldn’t matter less. I trained him. Suffice it at that. And here’s something to consider, too: more than anything else — you must remember that such an experiment is not the story of the rat running through the maze, but of the scientist who put the rat there in the first place. That’s me. When it comes to humans, I am that scientist — and they are all the rats.
Resolution: I met with Deacon and Reggie a few more times before the night of The Ritual of 1977. I laid out for them the basics of what I intended to do — for the parts I’d figured out, at least, of what I needed to accomplish to earn the favor of the Horses — and, not just favor, but a boon. That’s why I’d included talk of the idea of a boon to Victor. So, knowing who I am and what Victor was — was it enough? Certainly not. Not by a long shot. The details just didn’t seem to all be there. And, you know, I realized that there was a critical question I wasn’t addressing. That question: what’s the maze? If I’m the scientist, and Victor is the rat — then what is the maze that I’m hiding the cheese in that he wants so much? And then I realized that the maze … well, that’s this wrongbody world — the spillage out of space when the True People fell into The Wrong Hands. Except it’s a maze that spun out of space and time at random. Endless corners. Dead ends. Pits and towers and platforms and columns of shaped matter — none of it with any real meaning. And, as I’ve said, Victor was just one more rat. But I coddled him. I pleased him. I made him ready for any maze, as you do with a wrongbody. And when you do all that, they will walk through a storm for you. Add sex into the mix, and they will bleed for you. And the more you withhold the prize, the more they will fight for you. So I did exactly that. I withheld myself. I was stingy with praise, but I didn’t make the mistake of filling the silence with condemnation. No — I just let the silence linger. And put on a disappointed face. And it was more than enough to keep him running to me over those next few weeks.. And, true to form, the more I withheld, the more Victor Marsh fell into line with the behaviors I wanted to train him in. It was to be a short training regimen, as I had only a few weeks to prepare him for The Ritual of 1977. But I managed it, with accoutrements just familiar enough to him that he wouldn’t run in fear. It’s remarkable what lonely people will put up with when they think there’s a chance they’ll get a kiss, or, hell, even a peck. Or a kind word. Victor was so desperate, he’d succumb for any of those things. Isn’t that sad? Well, wouldn’t it be, if Victor Marsh were still alive? If my Cameron hadn’t taken back his blood just days ago? But that’s the thing about rituals: they have echoes. Victor bought into the maze-world I made for him, bit by bit and piece by piece for little crumbs — never getting the cheese he wanted. As if I would’ve given it to him. But, I will admit, I nevertheless enjoyed watching him run that maze, as I guided him step by step. As I took him to dance in the woods at twilight time. We would lie on the grass on this big picnic blanket Victor would bring, and I would listen to his awful poetry. Oh, the poems! They often made me start to laugh — which, as you know, I can make look like tears. He used to stop and look up from his little journal.
“Do you want me to stop?” he’d ask worriedly. His face would make this grimace that made him look sort of like a frog.
“No,” I’d say, my face all scrunched up. “Keep going. I need to hear how it ends.” I made sure to use little words like ‘need’ to push him further and further onward down the maze corridors. Why use ‘want’ when ‘need’ would send a stronger message to him. When ‘need’ would resonate with his own desperation, as if I was feeling a need in that moment anything like the need that he felt all the time. Now, I want to make clear when I say ‘sex’ here that I don’t mean actual physical copulation. Because Victor Marsh was that variety of young gentleman who clearly wouldn’t think to make a move on any woman, ever. And I knew that. I wasn’t trying to drive him to try something that I would’ve of course had to reject. That wasn’t the point of this. The ‘sex’ I mean there is to say I made sure to keep the allure of the abstract idea of ‘sex’ ever present for him, as if the next time we met up would be that magical time when I would move things further than the pecks he’d get. Not that I suspected he’d be able to handle it. But, nevertheless, the allure was always something I worked hard to maintain. It was part of the maze, really, keeping myself within the rigors of what he expected of women. He simply lacked the imagination to consider me in any greater abstract capacity than what he saw and understood me to be. That I was not of his world never even occurred to him. Which is why he was never destined for greatness, and why you should not mourn his loss to this wrongbody world. Especially not after what he would one day do to Cameron. If I’d known what would happen later, I would have slit Victor’s throat in a heartbeat at The Ritual of 1977. But it does no good to try to predict where the golden threads of the tapestry will take you when you’re on a wrongbody world. They are too dense, and there are too many. The Hiltrauds’ efforts to supplant that reality can disrupt them — for a brief time — but to no effect beyond the petty nonsense of their nothing-lives. Power is determined by what we can genuinely affect — not the absence of effect. I don’t know what I’d call what the Hiltrauds do. Failed rebellion? Futile application of energy? I don’t know, to this day. Now, they don’t come near me. But then, they tried. I hate them so. Almost as much as I hated Victor Marsh. And, you know that they say that revenge leaves you hollow and empty? It did not leave me empty. It left me energized and full — full, no less, than with a soon-to-be-reborn Cameron. Revenge gave me back my beloved Cameron Stye. Revenge gave me back what Victor Marsh thought he could take away. But I pulled the threads back. I pulled them together. He made the choice to die, did Victor Marsh. I didn’t tell him to be in that basement with Cameron. I didn’t tell hm to do what he did down there. He made the choices that led to his death. He made every single choice that led to the necessity of his death. For a long time, I blamed myself by involving him in The Ritual of 1977. But there’s no sense to that kind of thinking. Victor could have stayed loyal to me. Could have kept going on that path like the good little rat he was. But he decided he didn’t think he was a rat any more, and that would eventually prove to be his undoing by my hand. Mine! And Cameron’s. And, in a way, Mickey’s — but how long has it been since Mickey’s hands were his? Mickey made his choice all those years ago, to follow the song. Just like Victor made the choice to follow me into my world. I used the old wrongbody accoutrements: the Ouija board, the Tarot, the I Ching. Tea leaves and palmistry, until bit by bit I had him believing in what I could do.
“This seems weird,” he’d always say, at first. The first few dozen times.
“I know,” I’d always say back. I remember one time when he really seemed to have doubts, and I added: “But this is what my people do. This is what we believe. You have to trust me. Do you trust me?” I’d blink my eyes at him, imbuing my expression with all the performed sincerity I could manage.
Eventually, his answer would always be the same: “I trust you, Hilda.”
After a while, he stopped saying ‘this seems weird.’ I used old tricks of divination on him, to convince him not so much of my power but of the possibilities of the universe. I studied mentalist books. I did tricks like the ‘four objects with notes under each’: “I knew you’d pick this one.” All the little pretended ‘magical’ frauds of the wrongbody world. Pitiable, yes, that I had to use them — but no less necessary. And no less effective on Victor Marsh. Did he — eventually, when it mattered — truly believe? I don’t think so — but that was the beauty of the maze I created within the ritual. Step-by-step, I made his mind less relevant than his participation, asking him if he trusted me at each step.
“I trust you, Hilda,” he’d say.
By acting as if I was working to gain his trust, he believed me more worthy of it — simply by the act of visible effort. And that is the nature of followers, like Victor. They matter only so much as they are present. That is something I’ve learned from my beautiful angel horses. That is something I’ve learned by observation. The wrongbody people of Earth go to these buildings called churches to pray to a thing they call God They say that God is there, inside the church. That he is somehow inside every church. Too, and essential to their worship, they say that God asks them to be there. But what does this participation do for God? You have to question that. You have to wonder — does the wrongbody God need this participation? Does the wrongbody God — present or not — require something from all those followers? In becoming a god — Goddess — myself … well, I’m thinking about these things. Which is part of why I stole Evelyn’s book and made it my own. To show ownership of these phantom myths trying to push up against my truth. I saw the need for this blood-gospel, and the angel horses told me of its importance. Told me spreading the word is important. And I thought of why that might be. And I realized it is about participation. How you, the children of the future, will read what I have written and will come to understand me — not just through the majesty of my future deeds, but by the history and your participation in it. Your connection to the golden threads that I am creating with blood right here and now. The echoes of those deeds will pass beyond the burning wrongworld of Earth. They will spread. They must. They have to trust in their God. Their god. Just as I will grow and my power will spread when I rise as one of the True People. When my Divine Son emerges from my womb. I can feel him stirring. I have been asleep, I realize now. Yes — dreaming, but awake in my mind. In a chrysalis. Still, but changing inside. Making the way for my Divine Son. My antichrist. The one who will unmake what the wrongbody God seeks to keep whole. And here, born too, a new holy word! The book collecting my thoughts piece by piece and bit by bit, taking both my blood and my beloved Divine Son’s. Two strains of blood made into one on the pages of my Divine Gospel. For, yes, Cameron Stye stirs. Even in my sleep, in my dreaming state, I can feel him. It will not be long before he is reborn into the wrongworld of Earth. It will not be long before the chrysalis I inhabit will strain and stretch to accommodate his rebirth, and we will walk together out of Beery House and out of this false forest, through the xystus, the two of us protected by our Rail Man, into the perfection of the True World. But time is growing short. I must tell you what happened. I must tell you about Victor’s part in the ritual. The part I swore him to secrecy about. “You’ll have to trust me. It’s important.” I’d tell him only vague things like that.
“I trust you, Hilda,” he would say.
Yes — that much you must understand. And I think I have time enough to tell you that. I made Victor Marsh important. I made him matter. His life was never going to be worth speaking of, or writing about. His words, and the little deeds over the weeks that followed the start of my seduction of him are as inconsequential as his life was. But what mattered was his actions — his successes. And I wanted that for him. I created that for him, out of both necessity and an obligation to myself. And — yes, also, a bit of fondness. I am not some monster. I can be fond of these wrongbody things. I want what’s best for them, even if that means they must bleed and burn, as I’ve said. With Victor, I wanted him to ‘succeed,’ in the sense of aiding me. I would hold both of my hands on the ouija board, without his participation, at the beginning of every ‘session.’ I would narrow my eyes, and then I would let the lids flutter and close. I would tell him something like “It’s exhausting,” or “There’s so much pain.”
“Let me help,” he would say.
“Put your hands on the board,” I’d tell him.
He would, and the games would begin. “For this to work, I need you to trust me,” I’d tell him.
“I trust you, Hilda.”
Without ever realizing I had replaced what he wanted with what I wanted. He wanted to please me, as I’ve said, because what he sought — approval, attention — was something I could give him freely at any time that cost me nothing. That’s why, once I knew what his god of the moment was, I could tailor it to the ritual. True — he saw the prize differently. He saw it as attaining some kind of permanence to the state of pleasure he found at what be believed was the center of my gaze. He wanted to woo me — as if a wrongbody could. He’d likely burst into flames. And, as you know, he eventually did. But, as repugnant as the efforts were for me when he touched my shoulder or reached out to take my hand, I had to keep him reeled — because he absolutely needed to be there when July 04th, 1977 finally arrived.
Execution: I had needed Victor Marsh to be dependent, and he was. I’d gotten him into such a state that he couldn’t really do much for himself, blankly asking me what I wanted to do for entertainment every time we met. Thus, it had been easy to cajole him into playing at the supernatural. He wasn’t a believer, remember, and so he saw no harm in it. He doesn’t understand that it isn’t the games that matter. It’s the people playing them. Because I could see the golden threads of blood — the tapestry of life — I knew where to lay down the cards, the planchette, the pieces of stone — to imbue them with connectivity to the forces of energy that moved the tapestry when the tapestry wasn’t being moved by the people connected to it … or vice-versa. But they are not to speak to the dead, but to manipulate the living. I laid the little toys and baubles down on the threads emanating from Victor, and then I told him things he wanted to hear. Not by way of any whispering spirits or voices. I wouldn’t develop the power to truly see creatures like Emmett for quite some time. But I would do what the fraudulent mediums would do — speak of vague and indistinct generalities: an old relative or friend who died — the letters ‘R’ or ‘S’ — someone who was in pain from disease. With the baubles touching Victor’s threads, I could focus on them — and I could watch to see when they changed. It was harder to do that for some people.
“I trust you, Hilda,” Victor would say.
I did that. I made that happen. And it was an effort, believe me. Especially in the course of a few weeks. Unguarded or lazy people like Reggie or Deacon are always easy. I’d given them some simple instructions and told them the props to acquire well before the Fourth of July day had arrived. They both knew, understood and accepted their role. That acceptance was essential to it all, for so many reasons. But I knew I had Reggie and Deacon — fully. Even though I was young, myself, I could read those two kids just by looking at them, and change what I said accordingly to maximize the impact of my words. They would obey me, every time. Victor, now — he was older and more willful and, therefore, much more difficult. With him, I had to use the trinkets of the supernatural. But I was able to see what struck nerves and what didn’t, and to tailor my ‘visions’ accordingly. So much so that — even though Victor didn’t exactly believe — he was convinced enough that I was at the very least preternaturally empathic. And that I was using my gifts for his own good. Which I was, though not in any way he’d ever have understood. So, it was very easy to convince him to come to the woods.
“But what do you want to do?” he’d asked me.
“Just … something,” I’d said cryptically. By design. I wanted him intrigued.
He was intrigued. “Oh?” he said, waggling his eyebrows in that way he did when he wanted to seem cavalier. “Why should I?”
“Because I need you there.”
“Need me?” More eyebrow-waggling.
“Yeah. A few hours before sunset. In Fitz Circle, near the statue.”
“What’ve you gut up your witchy sleeve?” he asked me, playfully.
“You’ll see. And then we could enjoy the fireworks together.” I was trying to plant the subconscious idea that there was no threat. If there’s an ‘after’ to be had, I was telling him, then you know it won’t hurt you.
“Tell me a little more, at least?” Pleading eyes.
“Victor,” I said, quietly. I stepped closer to him. “Something … essential … is happening that night.”
“Something happening with … the world,”
“Look,” he said, starting to protest. “You know I –”
“Something good … ” I quickly interrupted. “And it had something to do with the two of us. And two other people — Reggie and Deacon.”
Victor blinked, more confused now. “Reggie and Deacon? What’ve they got to do with this?”
“We’ll need them there — to counterbalance our auras.”
“This is one of those ‘trust’ things. Do you trust me really? I need to know you trust me, Victor. Your trust is important to me.” I pleaded with my eyes.
A long pause.
Then, “Yeah, Hilda. I trust you. Even with this weird witchy stuff.”
“Good. And you like Reggie and Deacon, right?”
“Yeah.” He stretched his arms out. “I mean, Dean’s an okay kid. Reggie can be a handful sometimes, but he’s okay too, mostly.”
“It’ll be fine. But this is a big deal to me, okay? So let’s keep it under wraps to anyone but the four of us.”
“Then meet me in town on the Fourth, okay? Bring your canteen of water, too — and a picnic blanket. Okay?”
When the Fourth finally came, though, I remember being angry that I’d made a critical mistake in planning to meet Victor in town. The Fourth of July was, after all, a wrongbody holiday — the American Independence Day. I was angry with myself for having been so focused on what the day meant for me that I’d forgotten about things that might have jeopardized the plan. But I managed to find Victor in the town center, near the base of the statue of Remington the Pony. We took the bus that would get us closes to Fell-Munch. Even then, the routes out there were starting to dwindle. The work commuters had begun to stop, because the jobs had begun to stop. They blamed it on automation, on ‘a troubled economy,’ or whatever the terms of the day were about the gradual disintegration of towns like Drodden all over America. It was already happening, and an outsider’s perspective made it obvious — but, back then, there weren’t as many outsiders in town. Fewer to see what was going on. To notice the ‘For Sale’ signs and actually wonder why there were more this month than last month. To see factories sitting empty. Smokestacks without smoke. Parking lots without cars or trucks. We rode the bus in silence, Victor and I. I carried my macrame handbag. He had that blue backpack of his slung over his shoulder. We didn’t say too much as we got off the bus and walked through the woods, past the cattails and black cherry trees, past the willows, past the Dirt Clod — all the way out to the little gully where Reggie and Deacon were already waiting. The shadows of the day were getting longer. In the distance, you could hear firecrackers going off every so often. But the sun hadn’t set yet, so the official fireworks displays weren’t being launched. Just echoes like gunshots or engine misfires. Maybe the echoes of someone playing music somewhere in the woods. There were a few houses out there. The Yellow Store maybe. Fourth of July music coming out of a scratchy radio, sounded like. Loud enough to be heard even out here. Or maybe some other house I didn’t know about. There are more people who live in and around the woods than just the Greenlee, Hiltraud, Beery and Marsh families — even now.
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Victor said just before reached the break in the trees near the gully.
“I just hope we don’t get into trouble for being out here,” Victor said.
“I’m basically an adult,” I said. “I’m supervising. As long as I’m here, I’m technically keeping you all out of trouble,” I said, which was my pat answer for Victor’s concerns about Reggie. “I thought you said you trusted me.”
“I trust you,” he said.
We walked out from the tree line. There was the gully, and — just like I’d asked of them — Reggie and Deacon had brought three metal folding chairs and set them up in he middle of the gully: Reggie was sitting in the far left one and Deacon the far right, leaving the middle unoccupied — also just as I’d asked them to do. The sunlight through the trees made the younger kids’ faces look sort of orange and red in the changing light. I noticed off to Reggie’s side, lying on the ground, was the shovel I’d told him to bring. As I’d known he would.
“Well — finally!” Reggie said, exasperated, dropping his head with a grumbly moan.
“Hi, Hilda,” Deacon said with a wave. “Hi, Victor.” He looked over at Reggie. “Will you quit it, man?”
“I wish I could quit,” Reggie said to his friend, without moving to lift his head.
“I need you two serious,” I said, climbing down into the gully.
Victor followed me down.
I walked over and sat in the center chair, looked up at Victor as he approached. “I don’t get a chair?” he asked.
“That’s why you have the blanket,” I told him.
“Uh, okay,” Victor said, with a half-shrug. He unbuttoned his backpack, unzipped a pocket and pulled out a carefully-folded red-and-white-checker picnic blanket.
Deacon reached into his pocket and pulled out two good-sized wrapped lollipops. He handed one to me. “Could you pass this to Reggie?”
I handed the lollipop across to Reggie. “Did you bring enough for everyone?” I asked Deacon, knowing he had.
Deacon nodded and started to reach into his other pocket.
I held up a hand to stop him. “Don’t bother. Unless — you want one, Victor?”
Victor shook his head, got up to one side of the smoothed-out picnic blanket. “Nah. I’m cool,” he said.
“Okay,” I said.
Reggie and Deacon upwapped their lollipops. The candy hadn’t been part of the ritual, but I saw no harm in it. The sugar — and their pleasure over it — would warm the glow of their blood.
“Now — sit down on the blanket,” I told him. “And we can get started.” I feigned a worried look to the glow of the invisible horizon line coming through the trees. “We don’t have a lot of time, and there are communions to do.” Even as I performed, I tried to take furtive glances at the other three. “Let’s get started.” I lowered my head and put my hands together in my lap. “We come here to commune with nature at a time of change in the world, to reinvigorate the connections we have with this place, and with each other, and with the spirits of these ancient woods. We come here to speak to animal and tree and the things unknown that live in the dark so that they may keep us guarded and well, protected and safe.” I was making it up as I went, stealing what I’d heard in movies and in comic books. I tried to make my voice suitably theatrical.
It must’ve been working, because Deacon already looked a little scared. “What do we do?”
“First, we need to see about our auras. And — if any of our auras are not pure — to cleanse our auras, one at a time.” I got back up out of the chair. Walked over to pass by each one of them in turn and thn put my hands together in front of Deacon like you would to cup some water. I leaned down a little, toward Deacon. “Lay your right hand here, palm-up,” I told Deacon. He was always first for rituals like this, because he was the least-likely to object … and that usually set a precedent Reggie would follow.
Deacon sucked the lollipop into his mouth so only the stick was coming out, and then laid his right hand tentatively on my outstretched open palms.
I looked over his hand, as if I was inspecting some imaginary aura of his. All I was really looking at was the golden glow of his blood under his skin. The glow pulsed with his nervous energy. “Yours is the Aura of Earth, Deacon,” I said. “Pure — but prone to the winds of change. Prone to be hurt by mankind. Gifted to walk mostly unseen by the spirits that hide in places like these woods. You can’t let the power of Earth fall into The Wrong Hands.” I squeezed his hand with my two palms, pressing them together over his. “Your aura is cleansed,” I said, sliding my skin against his as I pulled back — as if I were wiping away something off of him.
Deacon blinked, rolling his lollipop into his left cheek, looking down at his own hand, enthralled.
I pulled away from Deacon and let his hand fall. “Okay, Reggie,” I said to the other boy. “Same thing,” I moved over to Reggie and, leaning forward, cupped my hands together for him. “Give me your right hand.”
Reggie Peak puffed his cheeks out and exhaled loudly. But he did as he was told.
I looked at Reggie’s glow, bright beneath his skin. Glowing bright from Reggie’s pounding heart. He was so scared, but he was trying not to show it. “Yours is the Aura of Water, Reggie,” I said. “A powerful aura. The aura of magic.”
Reggie stiffened all over. His fear magnified.
I brought my palms a little tighter together to squeeze him earlier than I had with Deacon. “An aura that speaks of being clean — because water, itself, cannot be forever contaminated — just as energy cannot be created or destroyed.” I’d read that principle of energy in one of Bellbrun’s science books.
Reggie calmed visibly, looking up at me with a desperate expression of need.
“Your aura will always be cleansed, Reggie,” I said. “But it has to be watched carefully so that you don’t compromise yourself. So that you don’t run through the cracks in the ground. You can’t let the power of water fall into The Wrong Hands,” I said. I slid my hands down his, lowering a finger to trace it along the center of his palm as I pulled away from him. His eyes nstantly went half-lidded like a pleased cat’s, and he leaned back in his chair, appeased — for the moment, at least. “Your aura is cleansed. But not by me. By the world around you.”
I stood straight up again and turned to Victor, walking over to kneel on the edge of the picnic blanket. “Now, you … ”
Victor looks away from me, watching Reggie and Deacon. Always so concerned about appearances — how others will see him. Maybe it was because he was a boy, doing something that made him vulnerable. I don’t know.
With Victor’s hand between my palms, I close my hands around his, tighter than I did the others. “Your aura is of Fire. As I foresaw. Troubling, though, nonetheless. And a troubled aura. Fire is an aura that is unstable, ever-unpredictable.”
Victor blinked, confused. Whatever he’d been expecting me to say about him, I figure he expected his aura would be described as Fire or Air. But I’m not sure he could’ve predicted my plan to describe his aura as troubling or troubled. That was the part I think that got him looking back at me again. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Nothing’s wrong. But this kind of aura can’t be cleansed. Fire, itself, can be cleansing or destructive. But an aura of Fire isn’t one you can calm with the hands. You have to suppress it or release it. And I’m not going to suppress your aura.”
“Then how do you release it?” he asked. Did he believe then, finally, really? I don’t know. But he was looking at me like he believed.
“With this,” I said. Then, I released his hand and reached into my macrame handbag, retrieving the pocket knife I’d brought for this very moment.
“Whoah!” Victor said, pulling his hand back quickly, clutching it like I’d bitten it.
Reggie and Deacon laughed at him.
“Whoah, whoah, whoah. All of you — hold the phone, here,” Victor said, blinking rapidly. “What the fuck, Hilda?”
I sighed and looked back at Deacon and Reggie. “Can you believe it?” I said, shaking my head. I slipped the handbag off my shoulder and tossed it onto the picnic blanket. “Now, of all times, he doubts. It’s bad vibes, man.” I shook my head again. “Bad vibes. We need to be solar here,” I told him.
“Did you two know about this?” Victor asked the younger boys.
They nodded in unison, Reggie more enthusiastically than Deacon.
“In this coming darkness, we need to be the sun,” I told Victor. ” We need your fire to be our sun. As one sets, another rises. The four of us will be needed by the universe.”
“I dunno — … ” Victor swallowed hard. “I mean — … ” He trailed off.
“Geez, Victor — don’t be a wuss,” Deacon said, around the lollipop.
Reggie loudly withdrew the lollipop out of his mouth from between tight lips, so it ‘popped.’ “Pussy,” was his contribution, before returning the lollipop into his mouth.
“What do you want to do with that, though?” Victor asked. He looked down at his hand. “I mean, specifically, this.” He looked back up at me. “And why to me?”
I looked back at Victor. “Your blood is where your aura lives,” I said. “And you need to give it a conduit. But you need three clean auras to help cleanse yours. My aura is already clean. So’s Reggie’s, because he’s Water. And I just cleansed Deacon’s. But I can’t do yours with just touching your hands.”
Victor just stared at me, blinking. Then, “Seriously, Hilda — ”
I raised my free hand, one finger up as if to signal for Victor to be silent.
He shut up, thankfully.
“Watch,” I said. Then, I raised the tip of the knife to my finger. “Trust me.” I jabbed the knife-tip in, and saw a pearl of blood form on my fingertip. “That’s all I’m going to do,” I said. I hold my hand out for Victor to see. “You’re supposed to be the focus with this.”
“The focus?” Victor asked.
“Yeah — that’s why I need you here.” I tried to make my voice sound quietly pleading, the way I know got to Victor. “You’re supposed to inspire them.”
“Inspire?” asked Victor.
“By showing you can handle a tiny bit of pain. You can handle that in front of these kids, right?”
“Hey!” I heard Reggie say.
“Hey, now,” I heard Deacon say at the same time.
Blood dripped from my finger as I held my hand out to Victor. “That’s not too much for you, is it? If it is, I can ask Reggie and Victor to take over — …” I left the words hanging there.
Victor’s jaw was hanging open a little. But then, he shook his head and stood up to reach out to me. “Give it here,” he said.
I gave him the knife, working hard to suppress the shuddery feeling running through my stomach as I watched the glow of Victor’s blood intensify right in front of me, from his anger — making it clear to me that he didn’t like my centering Reggie and Deacon over him.
Victor quickly lifted his pointer-finger and jabbed at the tip with the knife. He pointedly looked at Reggie and Deacon as he did it. “There,” he said, sounding defiantly immature.
I watched as droplets of blood dripped from the tip of Victor’s finger onto the ground in front of him. I watched as the golden threads spilled in time with the droplets, laying along the golden pathways that criss-crossed all through the woods. They did not stitch in this moment. In time, they would, but not in any significant way. That took more blood than Victor was spilling. And I didn’t want Victor linking up with the tapestry. No — his blood was mine.
I closed the distance to Victor, standing directly in front of him. Our shoes almost touched. “Now,” I said to him. “Drop the knife on the ground. And give me your hand.”
I brought it out: “Do you trust me?” I asked. I asked it quietly, intimately. A whisper for just the two of us.
I watched the defiance disappear from Victor’s eyes, replaced by a vulnerability. A suggestibility. “I trust you, Hilda.”
Victor lowered the hand holding the knife, letting the hand go limp. The knife fell onto the grass. He reached out his hand toward me.
I held onto his hand and pressed my bleeding finger against the one he’d jabbed. I wrapped my other hand around the two joined fingers to hold them both together tightly. I looked Victor square in the eyes. I made it seem like he was the focus of my entire world. “My blood into you. Your blood into me.”
“A blood-brother thing?” Victor asked. Then, he started staring at our joined hands. “Like –”
I interrupted him. “More than just that. A bond of togetherness. A bond of trust. Tied to this time and place. Between you and me.” I lowered my head, then, and spoke in the voice I’d always used when I was ‘casting spells’ around Reggie or Deacon: “Let this place — the whole of these sacred woods — recognize the bond … and cleanse the aura of Victor Marsh. Let him be a new spring of life and hope here. Let the fire that fuels him be turned to ash, and let the ash nourish new life. Let the yew and cherry trees rise. Let the oaks and willows take notice.” It was the first four kinds of trees I could think of that were talked about in the book Deacon had given me. I had to tie it in somehow — for Deacon. To involve him. “Let all humans be witnesses, let witches and warlocks be witnesses.” I wanted to make Reggie feel included, that I was talking about that part especially for him, to let him feel the thrill of me secretly ‘addressing’ him as non-human, as something more. And that’s when I noticed Victor was starting to shiver.
He looked frightened. Like, really frightened.
And I realized I had come on too strong. I realized I had made a mistake in making this bond sound so permanent. Inwardly cursing, I thought quickly on what to add to ease him — but to still keep him in some kind of thrall. Then, just like that, it came to me: “And let it last until we — or either of our children or children’s children — do willingly open our hand, upturned to the sky, to cry out to the heavens and the the Earth that we wish to rend this bond.” Let it remain untouched until then. Let it be true until then for both the heavens and the Earth.” I lifted my head, put on the act of a little shudder as if to suggest that I was drained from the effort of this. I released his hand from mine, watching as the little golden threads stretched out between our hands. I pictured the thread rising and — at its center, between us — twisting into a loop that floated through the air. The loop of gold did as I pictured. I had spent so many days practicing — using my blood, and the blood of animals, to learn how to do what the Horses had shown me in the vision. I stretched the loop wider and wider, circling it around Victor’s neck. Tightening it into something like a leash. I felt a deep flush burn my skin. We were connected now, Victor and I. He was mine. I had done what I needed. But there needed to be more done. To seal the bond to the Horses. To, this time, ask them the boon I had been planning to ask — for so long — but legitimized with the power unleashed by the Ritual behind that sacred wish. The blood-tying had been for me. To show the Horses I could create a thrall. Could bend someone to do what I willed — even if it meant to die for me. That was essential, to link my wish to the wishes of the Horses. The link having been established, the next part of The Ritual of 1977 was for them. And for someone else, too. In someone else’s name, who could not — or would not — be there.
“It’s done,” I said.
Victor stood there for a long, silent moment, looking right into my eyes.
I broke the silence: “Do you feel anything different, Victor?”
He looked down at his hand. The bleeding had stopped already, the knife-prick had been so minor. “It … doesn’t hurt.”
“It may take time. Relax for a minute.” I nodded and shut my eyes, trying to make it look like I was praying. I slowly opened my eyes again, and made a point of very visibly relaxing my shoulders. “The forest is pleased with you, Victor. Pleased with all of us.”
“Cool,” said Deacon.
Victor went to lie back down on the picnic blanket.
I turned away from Victor, speaking with pretended hoarseness to Reggie and Deacon: “It’s time to dig the hole,” I told them both.
Reggie and Deacon nodded, rising from their chairs. Deacon bent down and took hold of the shovel first, and then began to dig.
I looked back at Victor. “Your aura is clean, but we have taken much from the woods tonight. We have to give back.”
Victor started looking scared again. “What are you going to do?” he asked. His voice cracked — a lot.
“Don’t worry,” I said, affecting a merry tone, as if I did this ritual every day. “It’s a small sacrifice.”
“Sacrifice?” squeaked Victor.
“Will you relax, man?” I said. “The hard part is over.”
Victor looked at Reggie and Deacon. “You’re not –”
I interrupted Victor again: “No,” I said, affecting offense. “My faith doesn’t work that way,” I said. I reached over to retrieve my handbag, then walked around to the other side of the picnic blanket to I could keep an eye on Reggie and Deacon’s efforts.
Deacon started coughing and wheezing as he dug. “Here, you take a turn,” he said to Reggie.
“That’s it?” Reggie asked Deacon, chuckling. “That’s all you got?”
Victor looked back over his shoulder. “You want me to do it?” he offered.
“Hey!” Deacon protested. “It’s heavy.” He looked to Victor expectantly.
“No,” I said, putting a stop to the idea with a sweep of one hand. “It can’t be you, Victor. You’re the sun, remember? It has to be them. Earth and Water — for the ground, which is of Earth and Water. You are the sun, Victor.”
“And what are you?”
“I’m Air — the voice of the woods,” I said. “Four elements for a sacred ritual.”
“Okay, so — … ” Victor looked down then at his pricked finger. “So — what’s the other sacrifice you meant, then?”
“Here,” I said. I opened my handbag and withdrew the plastic baggie I’d brought. I held it up for Victor to see. “This is the sacrifice,” I said.
Inside the baggie, packed in ice, were the bodies of five baby mice. They were skill all flesh and bone, furless, with dark blots for eyes, lying dead in the ice.
“Jesus!” Victor cried as I held out the bag for him to see it more clearly.
Reggie and Deacon stopped digging and looked up at Victor’s exclamation.
Reggie dropped the shovel and ran over to me. “Cool!” he declared. “What are those? Did you kill them yourself?”
Deacon picked up the shovel that Reggie had dropped. There was a deep frown on his face. He wanted no part of the dead mice. He started digging with more earnest effort than before, like he was putting the whole of his concentration into each scoop of the shovel.
“I didn’t kill them,” I told Reggie and Victor. “This world did.”
“The world?” Reggie asked, sounding baffled.
I nodded. And, in a way, what I had told them was true. I had bough the mice at The Dodge Pound — the local pet store run by Morton Dodge. Pinkies, they were called. Meant to be fed, live, to mice. But I had needed them for other purposes. I had kept them, unfed, for two days. Then, about six or so hours before boarding the bus with Victor, I’d slipped them into a jam jar, and screwed the lid tight. I watched the little baby mice as their discomfort turned to panic, as they roiled around and then died from lack of air. Then, when all movement had stopped, I slipped them into the bag of ice and put it in my handbag. But they were creations of the wrongworld Earth, where death is a reality rather than a defeated foe like it is in the light of the True World. So — yes — in a way, it was the world that killed them.
“How did the world kill them?” Victor asked.
“Birth and death are cycles,” I told Victor. “You know this. And it’s something witches understand. Women who are in tune with these cycles are drawn to what we need in life. I found an abandoned nest in the woods. It was so sad,” I said. “As if their mother had died — and they hadn’t been able to survive.”
Deacon was sniffling loudly.
Reggie looked over at his best friend and wrinkled his nose. “Aw, cut it out, man.” He shook his head with disgust.
“Shut up,” Deacon said, voice blubbery. He resumed digging. When I had discussed the plans for The Ritual of 1977 with Deacon, his eyes had sparkled. In that moment, though, he looked doubtful.
I worried I might lose him — but it was too late to do much about it. Things were too far along. So I continued: “I decided to give their life meaning in a way that would help the four of us, too. To show the woods we are sincere in our efforts here tonight.” I walked over to inspect the hole the children had dug. “Looks deep enough,” I said.
I knelt down on the ground. I felt a rock scrape my knee and cut me open. I didn’t move. Sometimes, pain held me in place in a good way. Held me still. Helped me feel grounded and real.
“This is too much,” Victor said.
I looked back at Victor. “It’s nature,” I said. “I gathered them so they could become part of the forest, together. Would you rather scavengers tear them apart and scatter them? This way, in a sense, they will always be part of this forest … and when we come here, we will feel their spirits at play in this gully. We’ll see them in our heart’s eyes, running across the ground together — having the life in the spirit world they weren’t given the chance to have in our world.”
Victor looked like he felt guiltier and guiltier as I explained myself, as if he felt like a fool for questioning me.
“It’s all right, Victor,” I said. “I don’t expect you to understand all the things I’ve had a lifetime to know. But I’m doing this to help us — and to rebalance these woods. When these mice lost their mother, that’s when the woods fell out of balance.”
“You’re doing all this for mice?” Victor asked, sounding incredulous.
“Everything is tied together,” I told him, trying to make his voice sound sympathetic. “Everything. It’s something you just have to understand — and you will, the more time we spend together. I want you to see the balances of the world alongside me.”
That worked. Victor brightened up a little. “I think … I understand,” he said.
“Good. Then come alongside me. Come kneel with me,” I said, waving him over.
Victor joined me.
“You guys, too,” I said to Reggie and Deacon, gesturing them to come over, too. “Kneel on the other side of the hole.”
The children got down on their knees opposite Victor and me.
I gently pulled the plastic bag open. Even though some of the ice had melted, it had kept the baby mice mostly preserved. I hadn’t wanted us gagging from the smell of death. That might have gotten one or more of my supplicants to back out of The Ritual of 1977, which would have been catastrophic during that most vital moment. I looked down into the hole the children had dug, as if I were addressing it when I spoke: “This small wound in the Earth could also be a womb,” I said, trying for my best ritualistic voice again — despite my own sharply-growing fatigue with doing so. “Into you, we represent death with unfulfilled life, but we also replenish the womb of the Earth.” I reached into the bag and withdrew the first baby mouse. I remember how strange it felt in my hand, cold and wet and strangely abrasive to my touch. I set the little corpse down into the hole, reverently lowering my head and closing my eyes as I bent down to lay it to rest at the hole’s center. When I pulled back up from the hole, I opened my eyes again and took a quick moment to look at the others.
Deacon’s eyes were sparkling again, as he looked down into the hole. Not from tears, but from some kind of reverence over what we were doing. He was the truest kind of follower — the kind who can go from grief to exhalation at a moment’s notice.
Reggie, meanwhile, just seemed fascinated by the dead baby mice. And, maybe — probably — my talk of power.
And Victor? He was looking right at me. There was tension in the set of his jaw, and he was rubbing the finger I had cut against the middle of the palm of his opposite hand.
I remember that I really wondered about that — what it was about what I was doing now versus what I’d been doing earlier in The Ritual of 1977 that had earned the awe. Especially since he wasn’t the center of attention in that moment, because I was. Or maybe the mice. I took a contemplative moment to speculate: the way I held the bodies? The things I was saying? I couldn’t immediately figure it out in that moment, so I put it away for further review, later. I took another mouse from the bag: “Death into life, wound into womb. These sacrifices will return to the Earth and be reborn. Not in the selfish sense of those who are so wrong about how the universe works. Not those who would let the power of life and death fall into The Wrong Hands. With our hands, we do what is right — and of the light. And it is sacred.” I lowered my head again, and bent forward to lay the second mouse inside the hole. I kept my eyes closed, this time, as I retrieved the third mouse. “Wound to womb, we take what was lost and give it back to the Earth — we return the energy and the blood of these lost lives back to the arms of the Earth, into the Earth’s embrace, so that the wound might heal as we resolutely and dutifully replenish the wound to restore it to a womb. For we are the MOTHERs and FATHERs — the guardians of Earth, entrusted by the Earth itself, to care for all the creatures and plants and life that lives on and beneath its surface. That flies in the air. That swims in the oceans — of Earth and Wind and Water.” I laid the third mouse down into the hole, and retrieved the fourth mouse, my eyes still closed. But once I felt the flesh in my hand, I opened my eyes: “And the fourth of five sacrifices,” I said, “which I hold in my good, right hand — I lay down into the Earth as a sacrament — for as the first and second and third were Earth and Wind and Water — this fourth represents us, oh heavenly Earth.” I looked at each of them in turn as I made sure to speak their names — to put the focus on them: “This mouse represents Reggie Peak, and Deacon Ripp, and Victor Marsh … and I am the vessel to carry their plea to make peace with the woods, and the creatures and spirits who live inside of it. Inside the womb, the four of us are as one — and we are reborn just as these lost lives will be reborn. Just as all True lost lives will be reborn in our future.” I bowed my head and closed my eyes as if in further prayer. I was actually considering what I’d seen, as I looked at them, to tailor my words.
Reggie surprised me. His head was bowed and his hands shook a little.
Deacon was crying, but there was a smile at the sides of his mouth — he believed in the reverence I pantomimed.
Victor was watching me, like before, yes — but the tension had dissipated. What I saw instead was a quiet sort of — well, it might be arrogant to say, but I think it was awe. I think he saw me as holy — or sacred, or whatever he might want to call it — for the first time.
It had gotten darker as the sun continued to set. The first fireworks of the night started going off. Unnaturally-colored lights in the sky, distant explosions, smaller than the professional town display would have used. Most likely older revelers who’d snuck into the woods with illegal fireworks and alcohol.
I opened my eyes a little and stole another glance at Victor. To this day, I think that was the moment when the things I did stopped being some girl’s game, to him, and he saw me as having the power I said I had. Which was part of the point of The Ritual of 1977, after all. The Ritual of 1977 painted me as sacred. And the paint was blood. And, soon, it would not be just mice. But they would have to do, for now. I placed the fourth mouse inside the hole, eyes open this time. “We all learn how to face death and rebirth,” I said. “It’s in our first stage of life that we recoil from it, but then we look at it because we know it is coming for us someday, and we start to feel the fear of Death. That’s the second stage, where we become awake to our mortality. And we are frightened, even though the Earth is still protecting us. Her natural bounty saving us from Famine, from Pestilence. Even when we make War on each other, the Earth holds us close and tells us things will be all right. For even as we are the MOTHERs and FATHERs of the Earth, the Earth is our MOTHER and FATHER as well. The Earth burns tonight. Because Death is cleansing. Renewing, like fire.” I looked over at Victor. “You are like Fire, because your aura is fire, Victor Marsh. You were born from fire, Victor Marsh. All the world is a cycle that repeats and repeats. Your repetition is one of flame — then ash — then growth — and then flame. Again and again. It is your destiny, and others’ destiny. Earth and Water and Air are ours. Now — please — each of you — could you please speak out your elements.” I raised my hands out over the top of the hole, making slow circle-patterns in the air. I nodded to Deacon. “You first, then Reggie, then Victor.”
“Earth,” Deacon whispered.
“Water,” Deacon said. Did his voice crack?
Victor grimaced. Then, he said it: “Fire.”
“Air,” I finished. I lowered my hands to my sides. “Four elements. Four of us,” I said. “You know, some think of four as a symbol of destruction. Death, Famine, Pestilence, War — they’re called by some the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. But — did you know that some people see them as angels? Come to herald a new day for all mankind? Think about that. What seems like one thing can be another. It’s called chrysalis. A being changing into something else. We’re all evolving, and that is a day-to-day reality that no number of sacred rituals can change. We are not who we were yesterday, any of us. We must recognize that — and be willing to change … each of us, willing to become that which we weren’t just the day before. Because, at a moment’s notice, life can make our world completely different.” I didn’t know back then where I was going with it all, but in hindsight it makes me laugh.
“Chrysalis,” Reggie said.
I wondered if he thought I meant him, specifically. Then again, I’m sure they all thought I meant them and only them. I imagine Reggie thought I meant he’d someday become a powerful warlock, and Deacon thought he’d become the kind of man I’d grow to desire. But for Victor, I think it was so much more. He probably — I’m almost certain — thought that I meant the two of us would be one in the future. The kind of intimacy he could direct at himself. That was his nature, even though in his life he never really let himself admit it. And that’s why his life was such a failure. On Earth, you have to be true to your nature to acquire power and keep it. Whether you were one of the True People stuck here, or wrongbodies born of the dirt and destined to go back into it. Which was the key to the fifth mouse, which I withdrew — eyes open again, this time. “And the fifth and final sacrifice. To symbolize that there is more than the four elements. There is more than the wound or the womb. This fifth sacrifice represents the power of our thoughts and memories — the eternal nature of who and what we are. That, in so many ways, we continue even after we die and return to the Earth — our first womb, even before we are born, by virtue of our history. We live inside each other, and inside each other us how we are born, and inside each other is how we are reborn, by blood and sacrifice. Only when we know each other can we be reborn.” I looked to Deacon. “YouKnowMe,” I said, invoking the Prince of Bedtime’s name — but I’m sure that’s not what they heard. They heard words of familiarity, not the True name of my beloved Prince of Bedtime. I laid the fifth mouse into the hole. But I did not let go of it. I lifted it back out and held it in my hand. I turned to Reggie. “YouKnowMe,” I said. Then I lowered my hand back into the hole, but did not drop the mouse, again, just as I hadn’t before. I pulled my hand back out of the hole, still holding the mouse. I turned to look at Victor. “YouKnowMe,” I said. Then, I repeated the movements a fourth time, lowering and raising my hand as I held the mouse. I looked out into the woods. “YouKnowMe,” I said. Then, I shut my eyes and held out my hand. “YouKnowMe,” I said, and dropped the mouse into the hole from above. As it fell, I stood. “Heal the wound,” I said to Reggie and Deacon. Almost the moment after I dropped the fifth mouse, my hands felt raw and greasy. I pulled the soap I’d brought out of my handbag, angry with myself that I hadn’t retrieved the bar before that moment. I’d have to clean my bag. But the ritual had to proceed. I looked to Victor. “The canteen?” I asked him.
He understood, since I was holding soap. He pulled the canteen out of his backpack and held it out to me. I held out both my hands. “Pour it on me?” I said.
Reggie and Deacon snickered and whispered to each other.
Victor unscrewed the top of the canteen and then emptied the contents onto my hands slowly.
As he did that, I lathered up the soap in my hands and tried to clean myself. I tried to make the lather thick enough to coat both hands, to make soapy bubbles from my hands pushing together. I wanted the raw feeling gone, and I felt like I had to make my hands invisible under the soap to do that. I don’t know why. Cheap department-store soap dripped onto the ground at my feet.
Deacon took up the shovel and began refilling the hole. But, before he did, he took a long moment to look down at the five baby mice. “So long, guys,” he said.
I suspect he thought he was whispering.
He wasn’t. He had no capacity to modulate his voice whatsoever.
After I finished rinsing off my hands, with Victor spilling out the remaining contents of the canteen, I put the wet soap into my handbag. I just didn’t care about it. I’ve still got a lot of things to do. ‘Thanks,” I said to Victor.
“So now what?” Reggie turned to me to ask.
“Now comes the part … for the boon.”
Victor was still looking at me reverently. “Boon?” he asked. It was as if he had either forgotten our conversation about boons, or simply couldn’t snap himself out of whatever state had overcome him — though I suspected I knew what that state was.
“Yes,” I said. “You’ve each participated in a very exhausting and emotional ritual, each in your own way,” I said. “You’ve each brought something here tonight, and you can each leave with something more … or even less, if you wish to be rid of something.” That last part I made sure to add. I feared in that moment that if I didn’t include it, I wouldn’t get what I was going to ask of the Horses.
“Cool,” said Reggie.
I gestured for Deacon to walk over to me. He handed the shovel to Reggie. “Start digging, asshole,” he said, with a big affected smile that didn’t mask how emotional the ritual had made him. “I’m gettin’ my boon.” He walked up to me.
“You did real well, Deacon,” I said. “And you’ve earned this boon. What would you like?” I winked. “Within the limits of my powers, of course.”
Deacon had clearly thought on this for a while, because his answer came back instantly, though he was quiet as he said it: “Make Megan Beery sorry.”
Reggie stopped filling the hole back up and looked over at Deacon, made a sour face, and then resumed digging.
I’d blanked out at Deacon’s request, just staring at him. “Well … hmm,” I said. “Let me think on it for a moment.” I hadn’t expected something so specific. I’d expected him to ask to be more confident or stronger or something. I could’ve fudged my way through ‘giving’ him something like that. A potion I’d tell him would boost his confidence or add muscle mass that would do no such thing, but I’d give him the impression it had worked wonders. I thought about what I knew of the situation; how Deacon had, from time to time, regaled me with stories about his mistreatment at the hands of Megan Beery, one of his classmates. She’d apparently pulled a lot of pranks on him. I hadn’t bothered to tell Deacon that it was quite possible Megan Beery liked him. He didn’t really have an understanding of that, and his anger helped me control him better. “All right,” I said.
“Yeah?” Deacon squeaked.
“Yeah. We’ll talk about the details, later. But you shall have your boon.”
Deacon nodded looking satisfied, a more genuine grin on his face by that point. “Thank you,” he said, like he’d just gotten an extra dessert. Then he tromped over toward Reggie and took the shovel from him. “Let me finish. You’re too weak,” he said.
“You’re the one who needs help from a scary girl,” Reggie countered.
“She’s got muscles,” Deacon protested.
“I’ll give her muscles,” Reggie replied.
“Gross,” Deacon said, shoving the last of the dirt back into the hole.
I gestured toward Reggie. “I know what you want,” I told him. “You told me before. It will come later. But you shall have your boon.”
Reggie nodded, and then crossed his arms — trying to look powerful and imposing. It didn’t work.
“What did you ask for?” Deacon said.
“I’ll tell ‘ya later,” Reggie said. “Now, shut your yap.”
In the distance, you could hear the brass band starting up like they did before the fireworks display.
“Victor?” I said.
Victor walked awkwardly toward me.
“I know what your boon will be, because I’ve decided it for you,” I told him.”
“Whoooooaaaahhhhhh!” Deacon said — shouted, more accurately.
“Shut up!” Reggie said, elbowing Deacon.
Through all of that, Victor just looked at me. Silently. Still looking awed. Still looking reverent.
“I know,” I said to Victor. “I know. But you shall have your boon. Later, like Deacon’s.” Then, I addressed the group: “The Ritual is complete. Your auras are cleansed and your place in the forest secured. You are part of it now. You will be protected here, and in other natural places. Do not take unnecessary risks, but know you will be protected. This will be a sacred place for all three of you, just the way it is for me. Thank you for being here.”
The kids were busy patting down the dirt, beating at where the hole had been with the shovel, each taking turns as if trying to outdo the performance of the other at smashing the shovel down onto the ground, accompanied by exaggerated grunts and loud cursing.
“I especially want to thank you, Victor,” I said quietly to him, while the children were occupied with their contest. “It means a lot to me to know you trusted me enough to do this. It means more than you can know. Thank you for being you. You’re important.”
“Uhhh, thanks,” Victor said. He was puzzled, but then he nodded and turned away, hurriedly rejoining the other kids. “We gotta get these kids back into town, though, Hilda. I told their folks we’d be back for the display.”
We walked through the woods together, back into town. This time, though, I didn’t take the golden path of blood. That was for me, not them. They weren’t worthy to walk the path. Besides all that, it was easy to navigate by just listening to the big band getting louder the closer we got to the edge of the woods. We walked in silence. I suspect each of them was thinking about the ritual — the nonsense I’d made up half on-the-spot and half from the arc of the plans I had for the twin boons I would take — one for me, and one for Cameron. That Cameron couldn’t be there wasn’t his fault. The fact that he’d surrendered didn’t mean the war was over. I knew I could help him see the truth again, one way or another. And I was determined to make his boon have as much meaning as mine would. I would have to see him, but that would require my boon to come true first. I was sure I could hear the horses whispering to me, in their silent way. I walked through the woods with the the boys. The anger I’d felt at messing up my handbag had faded, and I was left with a warmth that spread through me the further back toward the tree line we got. When we reached it, I turned to the others. “I’m very tired from this. I’m going home. Victor, you can see them the rest of the way, right?”
“Yeah — of course.” Victor’s disappointment was palpable. He’d hoped his boon would be tonight, I could tell.
“It’ll come,” I said again. “Just be patient. Patience makes things better.”
“Yeah,” Victor said.
Deacon punched Victor’s arm. “Pussy-whipped, pussy-whipped!” he said.
Reggie punched at Victor’s other arm. “Pussy-whipped, pussy-whipped!” he said.
Victor laughed. “You want me to tell your parents you talk like that?” he said. “Now, remember — you were on an owl-watch, both of you. What kind of owls did you see?”
As I turned away, with a wave, from the three boys, I heard them listing off owls:
“Common Barn Owl,” said Reggie.
“Great Horned Owl,” said Deacon.
“Snowy Pussy-Whipped Owl,” Reggie said.
Their laughter and footsteps faded away as I got out of earshot from them. I made the journey home. I felt that warmth grow inside of me. I could tell The Ritual of 1977 had done what it needed to do. Given me the strength to do what I needed to do. The town display was in full swing. Big colorful fireworks were going off in the sky overhead, now, in the distance. Things felt like they were going slowly, an hour for every footstep. I wonder if it was the Horses giving me respite. Slowing time around me. I have no evidence of this. But I like to think that it was a respite so I could prepare myself. Whether thanks to their help or despite the lack of it, by the time I made it back to my house I had not just the strength from the ritual, but the resolve to finally do what needed to be done. That was the Horses’ gift, for sure. The resolve. Because strength and resolve are the keys to power. I remember how my legs were shaking, though. Physical weakness despite mental strength and resolve. I could hear that the big finale fireworks were happening in the sky above. I didn’t watch any more. I needed to do more in that moment than just watch a thing. So, I walked inside my house and climbed the steps to the second floor above the store. I hugged MOTHER and FATHER. Their sickening faces showed surprise. I quietly told them I had seen some kind of light. That their god was perhaps speaking to me. I told them I wanted to be different. I told them I wanted to see different. Then, I made them tuna hero sandwiches, like the ones I would later make for Salat and Armando. As they slept soundly, I set up the stove as I’d planned. And, with that, I left. The house fire that followed was far brighter and more lovely than any fireworks show had ever been.