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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