Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Book of Hope 26: Raising the Dead, Part One

"Then his mother went in quest of him; she questioned the trees, she questioned the pathway, she questioned the golden moon in the sky. But the trees, the pathway, the golden moon in the sky, all had their own troubles, and they would take no trouble for any woman's son. She questioned the sun in the heavens, and the sun told her that her son was in Tuonela's River."

--The Kalevala

When I was about 11 I got my very first crush on a boy in my class named Thomas di Angelo. He was half-Lebanese, half-Italian, and his dad was in the Army Corps of Engineers--he had the biggest, softest brown eyes you've ever seen and very sweetly helped me with my math homework (the only subject I ever needed help with) on and off. There were only two downsides to this great romance of mine: the first was that I was like nearly a foot taller than him, and the second was that he was officially the boyfriend of my then-best friend, Courtney Payne. So I totally couldn't do anything about it, even if I'd actually known what to do. But you know how it is when you have a secret crush--you feel like you'll burst if you don't tell somebody. I guess I coulda told my mom, but I mean somebody real. Besides, if you tell your mom a secret odds are pretty good she'll rat you out sooner or later anyway, and usually at the most embarrassing moment possible. I'm not accusing the Mothership of actually doing that on purpose constantly. I'm just saying. Anyway, I needed somebody who was like totally 100% discreet, somebody who'd never ever tell anyone else, ever, in the future history of the whole world. So I told a tree.

Yeah, yeah, I know how crazy that sounds--but gimme a break! I was only 11! Besides, this wasn't just any tree. There was a little park next to the base that I used to go walking in most days after I got home from school on my way over to Courtney's or whatever. And in the park just at a corner where three sidewalks met, there was a little glen with an old hollowed-out oak tree covered in ivy and moss that had a sort of natural door in its base that looked like an open mouth. One day I'd seen a pair of chipmunks come tumbling out of it and down into the grassy glade wrestling with each other--another time when it suddenly started raining, I saw a family of rabbits huddled up inside. Higher up, there were a few of holes in it where limbs had fallen off that looked like eyes and ears, and sometimes you'd see squirrels peeking their heads out of them watching you walk by. Bees were always circling around it and flying in and out. So privately to myself I thought of it as 'Treebeard', from the name of the chief Ent in The Lord of the Rings, which I'd just read for the first time that year. Finally, when I absolutely, totally couldn't stand to keep my secret crush secret one minute longer, I decided to confide it to Treebeard. So one hot summer day, after carefully making sure that no one else was around, I went up to it and stood on tip-toe and whispered my guilty secret into an 'ear- hole' in its trunk. And, stupidly, I actually felt way better! I can still remember how I fell asleep extra early that night.

But then I had a bunch of really bad dreams. Apparently I'd been overheard whispering my secret by a bee--so he told a squirrel, who told a crow, and somehow it got all over the neighborhood and finally to Courtney's dog, Sean Cassidy (yes, that was his name). That's when I finally woke up. But everything that day still felt like I was trapped inside a nightmare. I'm sure you know what I mean. First of all, when I got to school, I had the feeling that everybody was staring at me. You know, like we all stared at the poor geeky girl who peed herself in class in 5th grade and had to transfer to another school. That kind of feeling. But nobody said anything, just looked and acted funny. Then at recess after lunch, I was standing under the covered connecting walkway talking to another girl, Lourdes, because Courtney had been kind of ignoring me all morning, when suddenly I saw Courtney leading like half our entire class toward me, sort of like religious acolytes going on a pilgrimage or something, all excited and whispering to each other and giving me sneaky smirky glances. "Uh oh," Lourdes said, and split. I didn't blame her, because we'd both seen Courtney pull this kind of public shaming before.

See, Courtney was the class 'Queen Bee'. She was a blowsy honey-brown blonde girl, even taller than me, and way bigger. She had boobs before anybody else in our class, and her bra-straps were always slipping over her shoulders, plus she was constantly motor-mouthing and gossiping about everybody behind their back. Or even to their face. I'd been immune from that treatment up to this point because we were best friends--but today it was my turn. She led her delegation up to me, and suddenly I was surrounded. Thomas was standing at Courtney's shoulder (well sort of below her shoulder, actually), with a nasty look I'd never seen on his face before. Everyone was staring and grinning at me. Already I could feel my face flaming. "Look," Courtney said, pointing at me, "She wears guys' underpants!" Then she reached down and lifted my skirt so that everyone could see my panties. Which were girls'. In fact they were even pink (which didn't keep me from trashing them that night anyway, so they wouldn't keep reminding me of what had happened.) Everyone just kept staring at them for a minute--then I grabbed my skirt and I guess started channeling the Sound of Music or whatever, screaming, "F-ck you! F-ck you! And you and you and you!" (I had picked up a lot of really nasty language that year from my bros--I guess that's why I'm such a prude nowadays), and burst into tears. Then I marched off and locked myself into a restroom stall for the rest of recess. Then I came out and washed my face pretended nothing had happened. But after that I didn't want anyone of them for friends any more, which was maybe a little harsh of me.

Not that it mattered, because just a few months later I was living in a whole other country and starting over at a whole new school anyway. Which is typical in the life of an army brat (and I use the term 'army' generically, because everybody knows the Corps despises the regular army).

To give her credit Courtney even apologized to me the next week. Someone in the class (no doubt tipped off by the gossipy squirrels) had told her that I liked Thomas and that he and I were "doing it" when he was tutoring me in math, so she had retaliated in the only way she knew how--by publicly humiliating me. The weekend before I had gone over to her house wearing a pair of my bro's jockey shorts, and I guess she had caught sight of them when we were trying on stuff. See, what had happened was that my parents had been away all week, and when she got home, my mom hadn't quite caught up on laundry. So suddenly I had no clean underwear. "You can wear a pair of mine," she suggested, "Or you can wear these till I run a wash"--these being an old pair of my middle brother's white jockey shorts that were still in a drawer. In point of fact, except for the crotch, they actually could have been girls' panties pretty much, they were so shrunk and cut so brief, and of course in just a few more years in middle school everybody was into grunge and punk and Goth and wearing their boyfriend's clothes or pretending to be bi, so no one would have cared anyway. But you know what 6th grade was like. And I certainly didn't want to wear my mother's panties---ewww! Anyway, when Courtney had spotted them I'd been too embarrassed to do anything but just laugh, so I guess maybe she thought I was still wearing them. Or always wore them. Or whatever.

Anyway I accepted her apology, but we were never really good again. She wasn't a bad person, and I'm sure that somewhere she's now ruling a suburban cul-de-sac just like she ruled our class--probably she still leads delegations of housewife minions around inspecting her neighbors' house-siding and mocking their lawn furniture. And she taught me an important lesson: the moment you have a secret, even if you don't tell it to anybody but a tree, it's not a secret any more. The trick is never to act secretive about it. "Hide in plain sight, Scout," Dad always told me. So that's what I pretty much did for the rest of 6th grade. And that turned out to be pretty good practice for the rest of my life. If I ever get the urge to wear guys' underwear again I'll wear them on the outside.

Come to think of it, characters in the Kalevala are always talking to the rocks and trees. In fact, there's even one scene where Vainomen plays his kantele and makes the trees dance. Animals and birds are always talking, too, just like in my dream. Maybe that's why when Lemminkainen's mother goes wandering through the woods asking the trees and stones where her son is, it kind of makes me think of myself and Treebeard. I can easily imagine that if I ever suddenly lost someone I loved, like a husband or a child, I might wander around like that, too, so crazed with grief that I wanted to touch, even to talk to, all the things that had been a part of his life: the bed, the walls, the furniture, the trees outside...In fact, I sort of did that right after my dad died. I mean, I didn't say anything out loud, but I did touch lots of stuff of his after the mortuary ambulance came and they took his body away. And the whole time I wanted to ask each of them, "Where is he? Where's Dad gone to?"

Like his pillow or his glasses would know.

Although on second thought, according to Father Mac, objects do retain a sort of "memory" of their owners, sort of like how an old-fashioned photography chemicals respond to light--it was the saturation of the walls and floors and ceilings of the house in Bronzeville with his skin-scale dust, he told me, that had allowed the spirit of Billy Draper to remain behind as a ghost. But I would never have wished that fate for Dad and neither would he. So why on earth was I participating in a ceremony that would supposedly do something sort of similar to poor Likkanen or Lemminkainen or whoever you believed he was? I mean, A. it wasn't totally clear from the news reports that he was actually dead in the first place, just that he was "reported" to be dead, and B. even if it was possible to bring him back from the dead (which by now I totally didn't believe could happen, or to be even more specific, didn't believe that this cast of clowns could do it even if it was actually possible), what sort of form would he take? Would be come back transformed or whatever like 'Gandalf the White' instead of 'Likkanen the Gray'? Or would he be sort of all sad and ghostly inside, like Frankenstein's monster? Would he be a zombie? Would he be a normal human being, except with no heartbeat or breath or whatever? Could he even die again? I was totally unclear on all these details--but it suddenly seemed to me to be way kinder and, well, smarter, just to let him stay dead. Let sleeping gods lie, right?

Only Dr Praetorius had other ideas. Of course, it was all BS, right? I mean, I'm gullible as hell, but even I don't really believe it's possible to raise the dead (even after we actually did it). But here's the other problem--I don't really know how it happened or much of anything else about that night. It's all just kind of hazy. Because, well for a variety of reasons: I wasn't paying close attention at first, I was sort of out of it, I don't speak Swedish or Finnish, etc, etc, plus I got injured in the middle of the whole thing. I know, I know--I'm a complete loser. And this is even a perfect example of what I hate most about horror stories and fairy-tales and even slasher flicks--they endlessly refer to magical songs and spells and formulas, but never go into any specific detail. Except for 'Hail Satan' and 'Fee Fie Fo Fum' and stuff like that, but that doesn't really count, does it? I mean just try saying "Rumpelstiltskin-is-my-name' three times and click your heels and see just what happens. Even when I was a little girl I thought this was really unfair, because if a magic spell works in a story, then it should work in real life too. Otherwise it's just cheating. Supposedly, the original sources of the Kalevala were full of specific spells and chants, but Lennrot edited them out because of Christian prudery. But I'm not sure I believe that--I suspect the old story-tellers cheated, just like they always do, and fudged the details.

According to everything I've been able to dig up on the subject, there are three main ways to raise the dead, or to be more specific, three completely different and separate concepts that people mean when they talk about it, that roughly correspond to the three main magical techniques. The first is seeking answers from the dead in order to find riches or treasure, or to gain knowledge from those who have passed onto the next world, especially predictions of the future, like with the Witch of Endor in the Bible. This can mean anything from using a Quija board at a party to digging up a grave and forcing the skeleton to talk. The second is to prolong life (or briefly bring a loved one back from the dead) by stealing the life-force from others, most specifically through the medium of their blood, or using spells and incantations. Vampirism or cannibalism is the typical example of this technique. The third is to raise the dead, either individually or in legions, by magic to serve as slaves or soldiers. Jason sowing the dragon's teeth or the zombies of Haiti are examples of this one--and so are traditional fairy-lore resurrections, like in Jonathan Norrell and Mr Strange (or is it the other way round? I can never remember.) All three are called 'Necromancy"--that's what a necromancer does, is raise the dead in one way or another. Now, I'd like to pretend to you that I already knew all this at the start of Dr Praetorius' little ceremony, but actually I didn't--I've tried to understand what went on that night in hindsight by researching the subject, talking it over with Alex (who was sitting beside me whispering at me most of the time) and, of course, Dr P himself, who later gave me typed instructions for the ceremony (actually, I had to retype them--most of it was just scribbles). Because at the time I was pretty much totally clueless.

For one thing, it was dark. The rest of the 'crowd' on their individual rocks were now just dark indistinct shapes, some of them punctuated by the tiny glowing points of cigarettes or spliffs. Except for a few murmured conversations everything had turned dead quiet. I guess it must have been about 1 AM or so, and I started to doze off. Onstage a match flared, and I saw Anssi's face briefly as he lit a candle--and then very slowly one by one about a dozen more in a wide circle. This more or less dimly illuminated the rock-stage, and by their flickering glow I could make out that Anssi was now wearing a hooded white robe with gold stitching. So I figured Alex was right--we were in for a bit of theater. I caught a whiff of the candles and started choking.

"Ew, gross!' I gagged at Alex. "What's that smell?"

"Sulphur," he whispered back. What was he whispering for? Behind us, there was a restless sort of rustling noise, and Dr Praetorius appeared suddenly on the stage, apparently dressed for a luau, stuffed into a bright Hawaiian shirt and surfer shorts underneath a hooded robe that looked like it had been sewn together from carpet-scraps. As my eyes adjusted I noticed that the edge of his hood was fringed with human teeth on little threads, and he was carrying a sort of staff that looked like a human thighbone with a stuffed owl's head stuck to it. I started choking again just trying not to laugh. Huffing and puffing, he wheezed his great bulk around the stage pointing at stuff with his 'wand'--I noticed a big mound of earth in the middle of it, and behind that 'Tapio's Table', the giant slab of wood, had been converted into an altar by having a heavy white sheet draped over it. A gold chalice sat on a sort of fondue burner at one end, and at the other someone seemed to be lying on top of it. The person's clothes looked familiar--and suddenly I realized it was Riita! She was lying like in a trance or something, unmoving but with her eyes open and staring, up there in her 'bridal gown'. And she wasn't the only one wearing one, it occurred to me.

So I was all like, "You mean Riita's part of the ceremony? What about--?" but Alex shushed me. I stared at him in shock, because now he was wearing an owl mask too. It looked like something he'd found at a costume shop, and I could see his glasses glinting though the eye-holes. I looked around, and noticed that most of the people behind us were putting on animal masks and tails, and some were even taking off their clothes. This looked like it could get really ugly, since the average age there must of been like 40 or whatever. Anssi walked down the stage and past us swinging a sort of incense bowl like a censor in church that was billowing out a dark, putrid-smelling smoke. Pretty soon the whole hall was hazy with it, and I wasn't the only one coughing any more. At least it helped keep the mosquitos away.

"Don't inhale too much of that," Alex muttered in my ear. "You'll pass out. It's a mix of vervain, wormwood, rue, henbane, dried nightshade, mushrooms, belladonna, and poppy." A home-made hallucinogen, in other words.

A successful necromancer has to sort of become 'at one with the dead' if he's to be successful in raising one of them. This means he has to go through a phase of living like a graveyard ghoul, surrounded by dead things, making his utensils from bones and his clothes from their skins or whatever, and even eating their flesh raw, like Hannibal Lector. He has to bathe in dust and sleep in a coffin, ideally inside a charnel-house, so that at some point the world of the dead becomes as real to him as this one, and he can actually start seeing and you know, talking to them or whatever. That's the idea, anyway, though it's too disgusting to actually think about seriously. I mean, wouldn't you get e. coli poisoning or something? But it's like a rite of passage for a magician--Dr P seems to have gone through a stage like that when he was homeless and dumpster-surfing for meals and panhandling tourists and stuff before he got rich. At least according to his website. I guess the experience was a little like getting an advanced degree from a state university. As far as the food is concerned, anyway.

Now Dr P was standing with his back to us and his arms dramatically outstretched over Riita, started speaking in what I took to be his own personal version of Finnish mixed with Swedish (privately I think of this pidgin as 'Swinish'). I couldn't understand a single word, except a few of them in Latin. All of a sudden, I realized where I'd seen the clothes he was wearing before--on Likkanen on the airplane, remember? I guess maybe Dr P had stolen his suitcase or something in order to bring him back to life. Now I was hearing a new noise, kind of a jangling, vibrating sound like instruments being tuned up before a concert. What had happened was that a bunch of the musicians from the bands that had been performing all day were bringing out acoustic instruments like guitars, fiddles, tambourines, drums, etc. and were kind of picking at them, not really playing a tune, but just making a kind of droning musical vibration. Most of the women there, still wearing their animal masks, took off the rest of their clothes and started slowly dancing. Onstage, Dr P struck one of the gold chalices three times with his staff and raised his arms again, and a naked man wearing a deer-mask with antlers on his head walked slowly into the firelight. it was Kimmo, sweating and red all over, still wearing his running shoes but nothing else. He had a really painful looking woody, if you'll pardon my French (I say 'painful' cuz it was even redder than the rest of him, maybe with embarrassment.) The crowd started chanting and clapping in time with the music, and he went up to Riita, who was still lying there all out of it, and just stuck it in her.

All around me, people started falling down on the little mossy patches between the rocks and on picnic blankets and whatever and doing it. I wish I could say it was a big turn-on or even like mildly interesting in a Margaret Mead-social anthropology sort of way, but I can't. It was significantly less exciting than a bad porn movie and, with all the dirt and moaning and groaning under animal masks and meaty smacking of bellies and cellulite, more than a little spooky. I caught sight of somebody I was pretty sure was Jenn, but the guy on top of her wasn't Harvey. Or her husband. And I didn't even wanna imagine what Drundrero and Mrs Dundrero were getting up to. Or Siirkka-Liisa or Gunilla. I'm sorry, but I'm allergic to stuff like that. I'll just never be a totally swinging modern, I guess.

Suddenly Riita gave a loud scream.

"OK, that's your cue," said Alex, pulling me to my feet. Dr P was looking down at me from the stage, his arms raised.

I was like, "My cue for what?? No f-cking way am I having sex with anyone here, dude!"

"No, no--your role tonight is just to give a little blood. It's OK, just symbolic."

"Blood?" Not again, I almost said. "Forget about it!" But somehow Alex managed to wrestle me toward the rock-stage--I guess he was way stronger than he looked. He'd have to be, really. Anyway, I was so surprised and tired and wasted from the smoky haze that I kind of passively let myself get pushed along, which isn't really like me at all. Then, just as we got to the first of the little rock steps up to the stage, I felt something suddenly smack into my sprained ankle. I swear to God it was Alex's foot--he had deliberately tripped me! I pitched forward, the dark rocks came rushing up at me, and with a horrible smack my forehead hit the top step. My glasses shattered and fell in pieces everywhere, and I just sort of half-lay there stunned, my vision blacked out and pierced by bright flashes, and my ears filled with a loud roaring noise. For a minute I thought I'd gone blind.

Then I felt Alex pulling me up and I could see the candles flickering and Dr P in front of me, but all just sort of soft yellow and pink blobs, like an impressionist painting in motion. My face seemed to be covered with water--Dr P's pink blobby fingers reached toward me and started mopping my mouth with a handkerchief that instantly turned bright red, and I realized I had like the world's worst nosebleed. Figures. The roaring in my ears got louder. It was the crowd chanting. Riita and Kimmo, I vaguely noticed, had disappeared. Dr P took the blood-soaked handkerchief and dumped it in the gold chalice cookpot, then chanted some more. After he did that for awhile he started sprinkling stuff from the mixture onto the mound of earth in front of me. Everybody in the hall chanted along with him, the same nonsense phrase over and over again. He raised his staff over the mound and made stage-magic passes with his hands. Suddenly the earth began to stir. Loose bits of dirt started to fall away, and a hand poked its way out. Then the entire topsoil began to tremble and shake, and something pale and shiny could be seen beneath it--with my lousy vision it looked like tiny squirming black worms on top of a balloon. The rackety music clashed and screeched and reached a sort of loud crescendo with the howls of the audience. Suddenly the balloon-thing sat straight up in his grave and stared right at me. It was Safe-T-Man.

No, not Likkanen, the dead guy from my hotel in Helsinki--Safe-T-Man, the life-sized plastic dummy from my closet back home. He had some disgusting foamy stuff all over his face, and he seemed to be trying to tell me something...

Continued here...

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Monday, May 07, 2007

The Book of Hope 25: Why a Swan?

The whole time I was in Finland I must of heard like dozens of bands and saw maybe 20 movies. I even thought of doing little thumbnail reviews or whatever of them here on the blog, but the problem was (aside from being way too busy), I just can't be positive enough about them. I mean it's not like Finns are unmusical, because they have actually produced a really amazing number of famous musicians for a country of only 5 million people. But, not to be mean or anything, Ireland has a million less people, so what's that about? Because everybody loves Irish music, even English people.

But let's face it, Finnish music only appeals to a narrow range of taste. Basically just Finns, pretty much, and Slavic metal-heads. I guess the deal with the arts in Finland is sort of the deal with everything else there: the Finnish language itself. It just isn't an easy language to sing in, and when Finns try to sing in English, instead of using their own heritage and, you know, distinctive vocal sound as a cultural advantage (like the Mysterious Voices of Bulgaria did, for instance), they all just try to sound like American or English pop stars, so the results can be pretty pathetic. If you don't believe me, try listening to Kingston Wall or Lordi or Nightwish or Sons of Bodom online and check it out for yourself. As for Finnish movies, they can be really interesting and sharp-looking and professionally shot and all--the Finns are the best tecchies in Europe--but basically they're like HBO specials filmed in a former Soviet republic. Finnish is a big problem in them, too, even in the famous ones like Man Without a Past--strangely enough, the more supporting the role, the better the acting. Less dialogue, I guess. The best actor in Finland (that I saw anyway) weighs like 400 pounds--he's the guy who plays the police chief in Raid. And I'm not even gonna try to type his name. But really, they should consider hiring the BBC to dub everything into English for them.

Whatever, the big exception (this is just my opinion, so please don't hate me) to mediocre Finnish music is their folk music, which I really like. And the most interesting band I heard the whole time I was there, though I would describe their sound as more electro-rock-folk, was a group called Tenhi ( That's who was playing in the Paunanne main hall/rock garden at the top of the hill when we climbed up out of the gulch. One of the things I really love about the TV show Deadwood, by the way, is the way the mining town is sort of built during the course of the series, so that you watch it gradually spring to life. Paunanne reminded me of Deadwood in the way that everything was all rough-hewn and slapped together, with lots of little buildings and odd corners and twisting paths, though of course there weren't any gold mines. The only gold mines in Finland are cellphones and tourism, I guess. I never did find out who actually owned Pauanne, but I'm guessing it's some aging hippies like Ior Bock and his friends who were restoring and renting it out for a hobby--while prospecting for tourists in Kaustinen. Tonight they'd struck pay dirt.

Well silver, maybe, not gold, judging from their hair. Actually, the smallish mostly middle-aged crowd, who were mostly wearing jeans and T-shirts with slogans printed on them, kinda reminded me a little of the folks at very first "rock concert" I ever went to, which was in a park in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, when I was ten. And you will absolutely, totally never guess who was performing there. David Hasselhoff. You know, the American actor. He was like the most popular pop singer in Germany when I was a kid. That was a pretty far cry from Tenhi, who were playing a sort of dirge-like evocation of the winter forest accompanied by a dark chant when I first arrived. In other words, not danceable. Which was really just as well, in my case. Riita and Kimmo disappeared off somewhere together, so I was left to find a comfortable rock with Alex, who had thoughtfully brought along a blanket and some warmish Cokes and candy bars. "You'll never get through this circus tonight without some sort of sugar rush," he told me with a dramatic sigh. "I know I won't. I still have so many calls to make--the fat old sod lumbers me with all the details he can't be arsed with."

It was weird, but I still could get no sense of like who Alex really was. I mean, he was charming and even fun company to be around--especially compared to most of the other people there--but in terms of personal vibes, he seemed about as blank as the lenses of his designer glasses. I wasn't even sure whether he was gay or straight. Maybe neither. I got the feeling that deep down he was a sort of, you know, sad person--and usually that's a total turnoff for me. Well, makes sense, I guess after what I went through with Gene. But something about him, maybe his clever mind and curly hair and sharp-witted manner, made me want to find out more about him. So I just decided to save time and be like, "OK, so what's your story?"

But after he told me, I really didn't didn't feel any the wiser. Only child, father in the wine importing business, wanted to be a house music DJ and a journalist but instead got a degree in "accountancy" at Glasgow University, moved to London to work for an MP, then to Brussels when the "MP became an MEP", and now to Stockholm to work for Praetorius. There was absolutely no mention of a significant other or any personal life at all, and he recited it all impatiently, almost crossly, as if maybe he was ashamed of who he was or what he did or whatever. I thought to myself, damn girl, I do not want to ever sound like that about myself. Sort of accepting about being alone and bored with life and all emotionally blank, I mean, if that makes any sense. Maybe 'detached' is a better word? Whatever, I wanted to be happy, and I wanted it to show when I recited my resume to strangers. But realistically how can you ever guarantee that? Just by making your life as enjoyable as possible, I guess. I suddenly realized that what I really wanted was to be fed a diet of constant happiness, like chocolate. And that would take another person. And not just any person--only the right one. The candy man. In Sugartown.

I'm still not exactly clear where Sugartown is, but I know it exists somewhere. Because when I was a little girl, whenever I was really upset about something and couldn't sleep because I was sick or scared because we were moving or something, my mom would sing "Sugartown" to me as a lullaby. 'Cuz I'm in shh-shh-shh, shh-shh-shh, shh-shh-shh-shh-Sugartown..." It's a great way to say 'Shhhh' a lot to a whiney kid, I guess.

I'm guessing Alex's mom never sang him any lullabies at all. He only perked up when he was being malicious about his employer: "Magician, indeed. This 'raising the dead' ceremony we're to witness tonight is just his latest load of wank."

"You don't believe in any of it, then?"

He snorted. "Magic? It's all just pants. I should know, since I've made the arrangements for it--including the blood sacrifice. It's all done with mirrors, like the guerilla theater tricks he used to perform when he was a street busker for tourists in Stockholm's Old Town. How he ever got rich doing that for a living is a bleeding mystery to me."

I was like, "Sacrifice???"

And he was like, "Chill, not a human sacrifice. A swan, which was actually even harder to come by. They're legally protected here--I had to bribe a vet to diagnose it with bird flu. Probably really has it--I'm not going anywhere near its cage."

"So Dr P is killing a swan onstage tonight in front of everyone as part of this stupid ceremony thingie???"

He smirked at me.

"He's killed plenty of doves in his busking act--they don't just miraculously disappear, you know, dearie--they get crushed in little spring traps. Real or fake, either way magic requires a lot of blood. I thought you knew that from your long intimate talks with the great man." Now he sounded like he was jealous! It was weird--deep down I believed the same things he did about Dr P, you know, that he was a phoney or whatever, but for some reason I felt defensive about him at the same time. I mean, he'd always treated me with respect and courtesy, and it seemed sort of gross for Alex to be dissing him constantly behind his back. From what I could see he was a pretty generous boss, too, even if he was totally tweaked. And I guess I also still felt sort of flattered--in a freaked-out kind of way--that he'd proposed to me. Of course, he couldn't possibly have really thought I'd take a proposal like that seriously, right? Or did he? Suddenly I had a sudden picture in my head of Dr P as a sly, manipulative puppet-master type just pulling people's strings. Maybe he proposed like that to every chick he met, just to sort of guilt them out or fascinate them or make them feel some kind of loyalty to him, like I was. Now I felt really confused. And why a swan?

"I totally don't understand you. You don't believe in magic. You act like you hate him and hate the job--you must be doing it for some reason, aside from just the money, I mean!" He looked cross again. "Unless you're planning to write a book about it or something," I added. Then I caught sight of the look on his face. "That's it, isn't it?"

He laughed. "OK, busted. That's actually why I took the job in the first place. Well, that and all the lovely money he pays me. I've been working on a book about the Neo-Heathen movement for two years, so when I saw Praetorius' job advertised online I couldn't believe my luck. Look, promise you won't tell anyone, right? The old wanker would probably feel flattered to have someone to be his Boswell, but the rest of this mob would likely lynch me or sacrifice me to Loki or something. Promise?"


Alex stared at me intensely. In the dim light his expression looked like that one you always see on statues of the Buddha. Smiling and blank. "And if you learn anything really deliciously interesting, you'll tell me first, right--I promise I won't quote you. It's not as if he doesn't deserve it," he went on, noticing my doubtful expression. "You've seen his website--almost everything on it from his so-called history is plagiarized word for word from the work of famous academics like Susannah Akermann and Anders Sandberg. Who I've met in person at an AI convention and, incidentally, thinks Praetorius is a charlatan and a hoaxster."

I was like, "You've read it in the original Swedish?" Yes, he said, he had--he'd learned Swedish in just a few weeks before he'd even taken the job. He spoke eight languages, David told me. The Finnish I'd heard him speaking on his cell phone just now he'd only picked up just in the last few days just to use on this trip. I totally couldn't believe it--his mad language skillz made me feel like a total dufus. I mean, I'd tried to learn Finnish for months, and I still had trouble just understanding what people said back when I said "Hello"! However, I was at least smart enough to recognize a good time to change the subject.

"How on earth do you manage to learn languages so fast?" I asked him with my best look of doggy-like admiration. "Is there like some kind of secret or whatever to it?"


"What do you mean?"

"The fastest way to learn a new language is in bed," he said and got back on his cell.

OK, so again I was no wiser. I still couldn't even figure out if he meant that in a figurative or in a gay way. Though as it turned out, he was totally right--and I'm finally picking up a lot of Finnish that way myself, now that it doesn't matter any more. And, let's face it--some bad habits, too. In bed I mean.

I like all of Tenhi's music, pretty much, although their latest CD, Airut: Aamujen is too much of a piano-y pity-party even for me. They were just about to record it in the studio, I guess, so they were playing a lot of cuts from it that night, with only a few from Vare, which is my favorite. Why do I like them so much? They don't literally play traditonal folk music in the way that some Finnish bands try to recreate the sound of the kantele from the era of the Kalevala (there is a lavish 2003 version of the Kalevala--a "Progressive Rock Epic"--available BTW, but it's not folk, and it's half in English), but somehow they manage to capture the feeling of how primitive Finnish music must have felt, if that makes any sense. They were playing the song 'Tenhi", which means "the voice of the shaman", when Jenn showed up to say hi--you remember, the heathen housewife from Columbia, Maryland? She had braided her dishwater blond hair and was wearing a tanktop and shorts. "Just went back and checked on the kids. He sounds like the guy from Coil," she said, or rather yelled, referring to Tyko Saarikko, the lead singer, who was growling into the mike up on the Flintstones rock-stage a few yards in front of us. High overhead, through the huge open wooden skylight, the sky was turning to a dark gold, as the sun blazed red through the round windows, burning through the swirling motes of dust to halo Dundrero's frizzy mane, to my left, like a giant Hairmax laser-comb.

One of the absolute worst things about me as a person is that I'm always noticing critical things about people--and one of the main things I always notice (which nobody else ever seems to) is how they walk. I think it goes back to my childhood, when I became really self-conscious about my gait, thanks to my mom. I guess I must have been in like third or fourth grade, maybe--we had just started having modern dance in PE, so one day when she was sitting on the patio having a gin and tonic or something I started dancing around the little back yard we had at that house. You know, to show off what I'd learned to her. But I guess she must have been having one of her "monthly migraines" or something, because suddenly she snapped at me, "Oh, for Heaven's sake, Hope, stop that galloping around!"

I was totally shocked, like she'd slapped me or something. I can still remember really clearly just standing there with my mouth open. I mean, I'd thought i was being so graceful! But instead Mom had made me feel like a great big clumsy horse or something. Anyway, after that I tried really hard to be conscious of how I moved and walk gracefully instead of galloping. In old-fashioned books young ladies are always taught 'deportment', which usually means stuff like manners and playing the piano or whatever, but also includes just learning how to walk properly. Especially because it must have been really hard navigating around in those huge stiff skirts they wore. Anyway, Jenn could have used some deportment classes, I thought. She had a sort of funny cartoon sailor's walk from side to side that made her hair flop back and forth like a spaniel's ears.

Although, come to think of it, the whole point of learning deportment was to attract a man, and Jenn already had one, being married and all. Plus she was a telephone-sex operator from home, which I guess meant she had a pretty different point of view on the whole subject of manners and stuff from Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott, for instance. Deportment pretty much didn't matter in her line of work.

"He's the head of the OTO in England," she said, still talking about the lead singer from Coil. "That's how Robb and I met--on an OTO message board."

I was like, "Nice. Romantic." WTF do you say to something like that, anyway? Oh, the Devil introduced you at an orgy? Bitchin'. "You know your friends from Seattle, Arwen or whatever? They sort of came onto me tonight. As a couple."

Now it was her turn to fake being effusive. "Cool! He's a really excellent lover. And she's lots of fun too. She's a great cook. You are so lucky."

"I told them no!" We were both shouting over the music now.

"Oh," she said. She made a big pouty face. "Bummer you aren't into them, they have a great leather collection. See, I have to be really dominated because I'm such a sub. And I just never seem to come with Robb--that's why he sent me to Harvey for training. Harvey's really great--he's into tantric techniques and all. And that charisma of his...he makes you wet just looking at you. I didn't even mind reciting my Oath to him every morning."


"Yeah, that's the only part of submission I really hate. I have to wake up my Master every morning with, you know, this long speech full of promises about how good a slave I'll be all day and do everything he says and all. It's really unfair when you both have to work day jobs, you're just not in the mood half the time."

By now I should have been way past it, but I was still sort of shocked a little. "And you do all this like right in front of your kids???"

"Oh, the girls are too young to understand yet. They'll be free to make their own choices when they grow up--just so long as it isn't X'ian or anything super evil like that. Anyway, it wasn't just Harvey I served--Arwen's pretty dom, too. She was actually like the first woman I was ever with. To be honest, it was pretty boring down there, so I just played 'Alphabet Soup'. You know, I made vowels with my tongue, like 'A', 'E', 'I', 'O', 'U'..."

"Shut up, Jen, this is way too much information!" The band stopped playing just that sec, so suddenly everybody in the whole place could hear me screaming. A bunch of people turned to stare, including the middle-aged Finnish couple just behind us who were dressed like Goths but were severely tanned and groomed like aging fashion models, and I caught sight of Harvey and Arwen looking at me accusingly from between their stacks of coolers near the back of the hall.

"Oh--sorry," said Jenn. Then she brightened. "Maybe I'll see if they want to hook up with us tonight--if you're OK with that, I mean."

"Sure, it's none of my business," I told her. "I don't want to hook up with anybody tonight, thanks." But I was lying, cuz actually I really kinda did want to hook up with somebody quite a lot. They just hadn't shown up at Pauanne or introduced themselves to me yet, I guess. But there was definitely a feeling of orgy in the air, and it was starting to creep me out a little--maybe because I was starting to vibe it, too, and it made me feel all itchy and restless and, well, vulnerable. I wanted to wander out into the woods and go to sleep there and then fall in love with the first guy I saw when I woke up, like in a "Midsummer Night's Dream". But with my luck, I'd just get a sore bottom. I remember in my bros' old Playboy magazines there used to be a cartoon character called "Li'l Annie Fanny" or something who was always running around half-naked being chased by horny old dudes--and sometimes even horny old dudesses like Gunilla or Arwen. That's kind of how I felt right now with everyone hitting on me. I mean, it's not like I'm some kind of prude who's taken "The Purity Pledge" or whatever. If the right guy had shown up I'd have happily dropped my panties for him. I was on vacation, FFS! But let's face it--this was turning out to be a major freak convention. Riita had scored the only major hottie there, and even he was looking sorta gross at the moment. The two of them turned up all red-faced and covered in what looked like baby oil, with Kimmo stripped down to just his blue briefs and running shoes. Riita gave me a big kiss. She had woven a sort of garland of leaves and berries into her hair.

"Anssi is helping us to rehearse now," she said. "For the ceremony. Isn't it fun? We are having the most exciting holiday, even better than Ibiza."

"We were just in the sauna," said Anssi, squatting down beside me. I introduced him to Jenn. "Have you tried it? It is an authentic smoke sauna just as in our ancient Finnish traditions." Now that he mentioned it, I noticed he looked boiled-red all over too--and smelled like a side of ham.

"Is that the little brick building with the twisty chimney?" Jenn asked him. The band started playing again, and she and Anssi got into some long involved convo that I only half paid attention to--at least until he started talking about the ceremony, which was supposedly about to start any minute. Dr P's biggest worry, he told her, was that it would be somehow perverted or invaded by Tuuslar, the evil demon who secretly ruled Finland. Jenn said wow a few times, she was down with that, and nodded sympathetically while she gazed deep into his eyes through her thick glasses--maybe she was suddenly into him because she thought I was, I dunno. Or maybe she detected something Harveyishly dominant about Anssi that I'd stupidly overlooked. Whatever, after he'd been going on about Tuuslar for a few minutes, I interrupted her play.

"So you think Tuuslar is actually, you know, a real person--not just a symbol or whatever?"

And Anssi was like, "Oh no, he's a real person. He is the avatar of Vainomenen, who has come back to Finland, as he promised he would when he sailed to the Western Lands. He always takes the form of an old man with long grey hair and a beard, just like Odin," he added politely.

"Hail Odin," Jenn replied. She was starting to remind me of the chick on Tenacious D who clogged for Satan.

"But I thought Vainomenen was a good god," I said. "Why would he come back like all evil?"

"That is just Praetorius' opinion. Gods are neither good or evil--their ways cannot be understood by us. Vainomenen is not acting evil so much as...crazy. No Finn could believe he is evil. But he is perhaps insane now. You see, when Vainomenen began to be needed and believed in again, after independence when the Kalevala was taughtt in our schools, he came back to us. But his true native country was not just Finland--it was Karelia, too. And that part of our country is gone, stolen by the Russians and its Finnish people all driven out. For Vainomenen it felt like half his soul or his identity was missing. So he became like a schizophrenic. That is why he says crazy things and does crazy acts, but everything he does is for Finland. He is Finland, but the ancient and untamed part--that is why he is so dangerous."

I was like, um...ok...

Anssi wasn't done with the subject, though. "And even though he is perhaps the greatest magician in the world, Praetorius is making a stupid mistake to do this thing tonight, I think. He is very afraid of Vainomenen, but so far the god has not harmed him. But tonight Praetorius will invoke Ukko instead, Vainomenen's father. Ukko is like the Christian god, a creator, but he has vanished from this country, his powers are waning now, like Tapio the forest-god. But even if he does restore Lemminkainen back to life--and it will take someone of the blood of Lemminkainen's mother to actually do this, to make the magic salve from the honey of bees--then Vainomenen will be furious. He may be jealous of Lemminkainen and happy to have him stay in the land of the dead. Or he may be angry that he has been ignored and insulted in this way. It is my thought that he will take his revenge on all of us here tonight somehow."

"Well, duh! Why are you helping him do it then?" I said. "Aren't you afraid?"

He shook his head. "I have never seen any of the gods, even though I have studied them all my life. You have already met two of them just in the few days that you have been in Finland. You have even slept with one of them! I can only imagine to be in the presence of such power, of such a magical history. This is a thing I envy you very much--even if Vainomenen should find me, should kill me and steal my soul, then at least I will have been touched by a god. I will believe with not just my mind--but also with my inner spirit. You see, because Vainomenen is with us now, someday we Finnish people will have our Karelia back and become whole again. Already the Russians there are slowly becoming Finns. They read the Kalevala now there, too, you know--they even have Kalevala festivals and many publications about it. It is like a seed that is spreading there again, like a forest renewing after a great fire." Russians turning into Finns? Huh, how was that gonna work, by osmosis? You can see why I preferred hanging with Alex--he was the only other grownup there.

"I didn't sleep with him!" I said. "Well, technically I did, but we didn't--" Anssi was pursing his lips and shaking his head at me, while Jenn smirked.

He was like, "His mark is on you--you are like a celebrity for us tonight. Don't make it spoiled for everyone here by denying it."

Great. I mean, what could I possibly say to that? So I shut up. I didn't want to wreck anyone's little fantasies--I just hoped nobody was expecting me to have Likkanen's baby now. Tenhi came to the end of their set and after some applause, they were joined by their friends and girlfriends, who helped them move their equipment offstage. By now, the sun was starting to set behind the trees, and it was actually getting dark, something I hadn't seen before in Finland. "I must go to help Praetorius," Anssi said, getting up. "It's almost time for the ritual to begin."

I looked around, but Kimmo and Riita had disappeared again.

"OK, but why a swan?"

"The Swan of Tuonela," Anssi said. "It is the sacred Finnish symbol of death. After Lemminkainen killed it, his punishment was to be murdered himself and sent to the underworld."

"And tonight we're killing another one? How's that gonna work out?"

But he was gone. Something else he'd said stuck in my head, though. What was it--that I'd already met two of the gods of Finland? OK, assuming that Likkanen really had been Lemminkainen or whatever, then who was the second? The crazy bum in the park who'd taken a dump in the street in Helsinki? That was Vainomenen-Tuuslar? He hadn't seemed so scary to me. Smelly and disgusting maybe, but not exactly terrifying. I decided Anssi was just as looney as the rest of them, after all, if that was his idea of a god. Or Safe-T-Man, for that matter--I can personally guarantee you there was absolutely nothing divine about him.

But I'm sure L. Ron Hubbard got that a lot, too. Before he died, I mean.

Continued here...

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