A few years ago, I decided to write something that spoke to the experience of growing up Neopagan — one of the only stories I have written that is entirely disconnected from the main far-future universe I worldbuild in. It happened because one of those pitch hashtags (designed to get literary agents’ attention) was showing up a lot in my Twitter feed, and I kept thinking about the disconnect between modern pop culture occultism & the commercial fiction it has given rise to and the environment that I grew up in. It felt surreal and alienating. The new consciousness of that disconnect made me more aware of what I was seeing in lit mags and the way pagan practices were being framed in general.
In response to the environment, I designed this story, and I submitted it to a few lit mags. It nearly made the cut once, and the mag in question recommended that I keep trying. However, one of my struggles was that it didn’t fit into genre fiction. It’s not a fantasy story, and it’s not exactly mainstream literary fiction, either, due to the topic. It uses some elements of horror, but most pagan horror stories rely on motifs grounded in Christian fundamentalist ideas about other religions. There isn’t a “fit” for pieces like this — the kind of stuff I would write if I didn’t focus on far-future speculative fiction — where “normative” is considered pagan and its ritual practices are not exoticized. Ultimately, I decided to stop submitting it.
I do, however, want to share it because I think it is an important piece to have out there. At the very least, it will get people thinking.
This is a short story about dream incubation, the aftermath of religious violence, and recovery. Enjoy, and hail Melinoë.
GATES OF IVORY, GATES OF HORN
Rituals for anxiety. An Incubation in the Halls of Ivory and Horn to Find the Roots of Your Distress. Good for anxiety. Good for depression. Good for finding those hidden places in one’s own skull, the inner world that matches the outer.
It started with a search: coworkers handfasting pagan. I scrolled past image previews and related questions — are handfastings legal? — and found no blogs to guide me, no perspectives of people who had done it. What I wanted was something by a scientist, perhaps a woman fifteen years older than me, let’s say forty-five, who had gone through tenure and come out again on the other side, strong and unfazed.
Instead, there were glossy photos that made the participants look like they’d just come out of a cottage in Wales, others staged like Pre-Raphaelite paintings. A lot of antlers and garlands. I couldn’t see any of them working long hours in an herbarium or sweating buckets writing a grant proposal. They were happy people who wore their religious jewelry over their shirts, whose ritual and work clothing overlapped instead of hanging separated in their closets.
The search I did next was rituals for anxiety. That’s how I ended up here, paging through an annotated ritual printout. I’m sitting on a yoga mat on the floor in the living room, the coffee table ritually cleansed with lavender and saltwater, adorned with ritual objects to take me under.
Homer wrote about the gates of ivory and horn in the Odyssey. Through the ivory one come the false dreams, and through the horn-built one, the true ones. The incubation ritual is about approaching memory as if it were like a dream — of finding the impressions it has left in one’s psyche, of drinking deep from Mnemosyne’s lake to find the truth behind it all.
Incubation is old. People have sealed themselves in slumber since there were first people, but after we started agriculture, we moved the incubations into temples of Asclepius and Thoth.
It’s a straightforward ritual, as far as they go. Rosemary and lavender bundles for smoke cleansing at the start, with images of the gods of sleep and dream at the center. Hermes stands bearded at the center of this, hand outstretched as if waiting to take me.
Hermes, perhaps, is behind the site.
It was last updated in 2010. I don’t know who wrote it — whether ze, too, was searching in Google for some answer to the pain clawing in hir gut. It looks like something scraped from Geocities before it went down. It misbehaved in my browser with its loud frame content, animated gifs of burning incense and rotating pentacles, and pixelated Renaissance depictions of the gods. The warnings and admonitions are in bold text. Some of what you see in this ritual will be disturbing. I receive emails from participants weekly about their experiences. Be strong. Love and light, Wolfsbane, is bold, red, and flashing. It shows up tepid gray on the printout.
I think I chose this ritual because Geocities reminds me of the world as it once was, before everything mingled together on social media sites, when my worries were simple and I was still in high school. It’s also simple enough to prepare without having to unfurl my anxiety and shame in front of my fiancée Camille like escaping from a chrysalis. There are no magical papers to burn in cauldrons, just Thomas Taylor-translated hymns and a magic circle. Incense, preferably frankincense, but I’m using what we have.
Camille has left for a retreat. It is early summer still, and the world is drenched in light outside. It already smells like a temple in our living room. She meets with tarot clients here, so the space is cleansed, the miasma of clients’ troubles carried away by smoke after every session. Years of her incense has perfumed the couch and its pillows, and it would take years for this smell to dissipate.
I light patchouli and myrrh and lay the pillows and blankets out over the PVC mat. Hermes is a new god in my home, invited to inhabit this bronze statue. Candlelight flickers across his skin, and beneath the beard, the statue is eternally half-smiling. I don’t know how to relate to him — but Inanna, the goddess I worship, traveled through seven gates, and Hermes may have come across her in the underworld.
An Incubation in the Halls of Ivory and Horn, a journey into the Inner World. You will see things that you once forgot, things that you wanted to forget, and anything else that the god might show you. The images may be disturbing, but the telos is the same.
Telos, fulfillment or end.
My eyes are heavy. I lay down on the bed I have made. The incense hangs thick in the air, four long-burning sticks. Hermes’ sacred number is four.
Dream, Tav, a voice that may be mine whispers in my mind. I fidget myself comfortable. Dream.
Water dripping in darkness. A cave, the stalagmites slimy and damp against my bare thighs. Shadowy, I want to say. Lightless, more appropriate. There is nothing ahead of me, nothing behind, just the sense of darkness closing in. Darkness and the sound of drumming.
I do not know why I am here. The drumbeat is my heart hammering, although I cannot feel it in my chest, and I want to draw breath in, to start crying. My hands feel forward and brush against stalagmites. I pull myself between them. There could be a wall ahead. I could be in the smallest space, no ingress or egress.
The ground beneath my bare feet is smooth, with puddles of water. I hear dripping over the heartbeat. It means escape, perhaps — and I move towards it. The sound stops.
They say Inanna left something at each underworld gate, but I am naked from the beginning. There is nothing left to leave, no bargain that I can make. Instead, I scream.
The scream echoes.
At least the cave is large. I stop.
A quiet hum rises in the back of my throat, the melody of a goddess chant. When I was a child, people drummed and sang around the fire at every quarter and cross-quarter holiday while the rest milled around the potluck table eating food from biodegradable plates in the shadow of the altars’ shrines. Isis, Astarte, Diana, Hecate, Demeter, Kali, Inanna. I cannot bring myself to say the words. My hum is deafening in this darkness.
Gates of ivory and gates of horn. I do not remember a choice. The ritual said to pay attention. It told me to ground myself in the decision — that ivory would lead me to visions and fantasies of pain and beauty, that horn would show me the stark histories of pain and beauty within my heart.
How do I see a gate when I can see nothing?
I wander until the tears lead me to collapse against the ground, and I cry for what seems like an eternity with no one to hear me, nothing but that chant cycling endlessly in my head. We learned no chants for Hermes when I was a child. Would the god even listen?
There is light in a pool in the cave. I peer down. The drumbeat is coming from within the water.
There is a void inside my chest, I realize, where my heart once lay.
Perhaps I have died and all I see around me is shadow. I cannot be alive without a heart. I reach down into the water. The heart is sticky, anatomically correct, and leaves blood on my hands. I pull it out.
It is my childhood bedroom suddenly, and I am thirteen, sprawled out on the bed reading a popular Neopagan grimoire for teens. It was on the bargain shelf at the bookstore, which will go out of business soon. Thirteen-year-old me calls herself Octavia because Avie sounds like a child and I’m not a child anymore, not exactly.
My parents are fighting downstairs. Octavia is humming Isis, Astarte, Diana, Hecate, Demeter, Kali, Inanna, fingers drumming out the beat against the book’s spine while she reads. The cave is hot in my memory, and I don’t remember humming it compulsively so young, but perhaps I did. Everything around me could be a lie, but this is the pattern of history upon my soul. The Gates of Horn never lie.
The book had spells in the back, the kinds of things the author thought teenagers might need. Bullies. Girl cliques at school. Power and empowerment and how to find a boy. I have searched in the bookstore for the actual book I need, and there isn’t one. There is no spell on Earth to fix my parents’ fights over money, where my dad breaks dishes and my mother screams back at him. He does the budget, but he doesn’t tell her what it is. She overspends, and she doesn’t know the target. It is a snake eating itself, no solution in sight.
So: I make my own spell, and I close that book.
It is simple: Red pen, a razor, scissors, and paper from the handmade book an aunt had given me the year before. They are still fighting when I sit down in front of the small shrine in my room whose goddess icon is star-studded, black, and wide-hipped. I cast a circle and call the elements. There is no light in the room save the flickering candles.
I draw a person on the paper and the suggestion of its internal organs and circulatory system. I prick my finger with the razor, let the blood well up, and smeared it across the heart. And then I cut it out.
I cut it out to keep myself from caring.
There is a moment in the darkness when I think Octavia sees me, where she takes breath in sharp through her lips and whispers, “Who’s there?”
That is the only part that isn’t real.
Octavia burns the heart in a cauldron.
It is dark when Octavia’s candles burn out. I am left alone clutching the heart. It is weak and feeble, and if this were everything I had lost, so many things would be easy. Of course, life isn’t easy, and I am still incubating, still in this darkness with no exit. It smells like incense all around me, and I taste coppery blood from biting my tongue.
A light moves in the water, thin and faint as a wisp. I follow along the water’s edge until fabric touches my face.
Fifteen-year-old me calls herself Tavi because Tavvie is too feminine, and Tavi hates it. She is sitting in the second row from the front. It is World History, which means European History, and we’re breaking up into teams to talk about cathedral construction in the Middle Ages. Tavi is distracted thinking about the dissection in our advanced biology class. The bio teacher always assigns me to work with people who hate me.
We move the desks into a five-person circle and place a poster on it. This is interactive, an activity with markers and pens and vocabulary sheets and a notetaker.
I have no memory of this activity at all. I remember the dissection.
It’s the beginning of class. John comes in late. We’re the closest team to the door, so he joins us and sits down beside me.
A year earlier, when my father was interviewed in a paper about Samhain, my classmates found out that I wasn’t Christian. John has slammed me into lockers. He has tried to sit with me in the cafeteria whenever he can to pass those small, multicolored New Testaments to me. One day, he saw me recycle one, and that’s when the threats started.
Today, something is wrong with John. He squirms in his chair and won’t stop smiling at me, grin creepy and wide. A girl, Janice, mumbles that he’s high. On what, I want to ask, but I don’t. John scowls at her and kicks her in the shin.
It happens when we’re fighting over how long the cathedral will take with 12th century construction practices. I’m not paying attention to John, and he gropes me between the legs with a big squeeze. I freeze. Janice’s mouth drops open. Rebecca and the two boys in our group let out surprised noises, but quickly regain their cool and start laughing.
“Cut it out,” I say. I hit John’s arm. He’s too fast for me to stab him with the pen.
John rolls his eyes. “You’re probably not a virgin anyway,” he mutters. “Going to Hell. Orgies and shit.”
I grab his wrist and twist it so hard that he screams. Tav — the now-me — is watching this holding my beating heart, my fingers coiling around it tighter and tighter. My chest feels like it is trapped in a vice.
Mr. Owens comes over to the table, grabs John by the upper arm, and takes him aside. They’re in the far corner of the room near the door. Mr. Owens looks at me the entire time.
Janice inhales through her teeth and whispers, “Woah, John’s in trouble.”
I shake my head and strain to hear what Mr. Owens is saying. It’s religious stuff, something about the church they attend, and Mr. Owens wants John to talk to the minister. The part I make out just sounds weird, like Mr. Owens is quoting someone. “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial?” It’s almost definitely the Bible, but I don’t know which part. I’ve never read the whole thing.
Mr. Owens takes me aside next, a furrow of worry on his forehead. “Try to cover up more,” he told me that day. “When you raise your hand in class, your midsection shows sometimes. It’s distracting to boys. Next time, you’ll have a detention.”
That night, I go home and open my drawer of shirts. I try them on one after the other, working the threat over and over in my head. It hadn’t been John. It had been how I dressed. I divide the long-enough from the accidentally-midriff-baring, testing each shirt by raising both hands while wearing it. Among the latter is my favorite shirt from a B*Witched concert. I take that out of the pile and hold it against my chest, just as I as Tav hold my own heart that was once within my ribs.
The rest of the shirts go into a bag for donation.
I don’t remember that afternoon, but I do remember what I did next. I made a map of classes at school against my college of choice. I needed to get out of this hellhole, go somewhere — anywhere — without a Mr. Owens and without a John. A degree in biology, maybe, or physics. I mapped out a plan and a contingency fallback and pinned it to my wall above my desk.
The Gate of Horn takes me back to the cave before we reach that part. I ask the darkness, “Are you developing a thesis statement? Where does this go next?” My voice echoes.
In the herbarium where I work, I sometimes daydream about submerging the specimens — where, fantastically, they come to life. Here, they would die a second death. The cave is too dark, and the water contains its only light. I have reached the wall, and the light is now receding as it dives.
I kneel down beside the water and clutch my heart close to my chest. The water is ice cold. I immerse myself slowly. Eyeless things bump at my legs. There is no bottom. I plunge in completely and swim down, down, down, chasing after the light.
The memories I have held within myself are something like those specimens. Their colors have always been faded, the structures starkly visible, with marginalia guiding the way from beginning to end with the biases of my thoughts at every point of my life.
I am not sure who the Tav who remembers that day in World History is. There isn’t a moment that one can point to and say, Ah, this is what would eventually make her afraid of explaining a handfasting to her coworkers because one question may lead to another. This is why everything is too much for her now. The point of incubation is to find those things that were once forgotten or too obvious to see. Wolfsbane’s page said that right before it warned me not to plunge into the darkness of my thoughts.
Holding my heart means I’m swimming with one arm, and I need to swim faster. There is only the darkness of water without end and the distant light. My lungs sting, and a part of me just wants to inhale.
Perhaps I have not moved at all. Perhaps I am now so subterranean that I will never again see the sky. What if Wolfsbane moved the site from Geocities when it shut down, intended to update it, and promptly died in hir lucid dreams?
I want to wrestle the dream from itself and hold it in my hands. The questions in my head are analytical, fitting for a scientist: How does the dream choose what to show us? What do the words mean? Does everyone have an incubation dream like this? If I tried it again for the same purpose, would the arguments the dream has presented be the same?
The light grows. My arms feel weak.
I taste air with my fingertips and come up and out of the water. My eyes are overwhelmed for a moment by the light, and the air is hot and sticky around me.
This is the moment I expected the dream to show. I am in my undergrad college’s greenhouse, curled in a tropical tree’s embrace while I read Chaucer for an Intro English class. Vivian, a girl in my dormitory that year, has just sat down to have a loud conversation on one of the benches with her friends. She doesn’t see me.
I still remember Vivian because I tried so hard to pretend she wasn’t there.
This me is also Tav.
Vivian and her friends are joking about Neopagans, specifically Wiccans, while sipping Snapple. It’s nearly Mabon, the second harvest festival, and Pagan Pride Month. Just when the conversation lulls, it starts up again. The Tav sitting in the tree’s embrace stops reading and squeezes her eyes shut. She starts crying alone, silently. You can escape the cornfields and the bigoted people in the Midwest, but new people will follow you.
It’s a short memory, but harder than the others. I look away because I am also crying.
But there is more that the gates of horn may not show. My past is a sea, and the slippery stones of light and ancient phrases are its shore. Light blazes through the greenhouse glass shaped like γαμεῖν μέλλε.
It’s useless to me because this is why I am here. I know what gamein means, even if I can’t read Greek. “The problem isn’t this.” I thrash in the water, my words swallowed up by it, and it fills my mouth. This time, the illusions don’t take me back down. There is bright light ahead. I have found the surface. “I remember the hour of the day I met Camille. I was in my office grading papers. It was 6:23 PM, and I needed to go for another fifteen minutes until I left for the full moon ritual. Years after I was a kid. I was twenty-five.”
I climb out completely and wipe my eyes clean. “We had drums, torches, everything. Ritual was like a homecoming when my dissertation research sucked and I wasn’t sure if I’d ever make it.”
The light in the cave reminds me of those full moon circle torches. I am not here for myself — but for us, for that girl who cut out her heart, for that teen nobody liked, for that student uncertain of how she would fit in if anyone found out. Ultimately, I am here for Camille.
In the cave, asphodel is in full bloom. On the wall is a rough-woven tapestry of the world. Before it sits a woman on an outcrop of stone, a knife on a ledge just below her.
She is divided down her center, the right side black, the left side white, as if made of porcelain, a doll alive. Her hair is matted and covered in bramble and dirt. She is bare-footed, roughened like someone who has climbed and fallen. Behind her, phantasms seethe. I am in the underworld, I think. I have died, I am almost certain.
Her eyes open, and she smiles at me.
My heart hammers. A heart, a knife, and a tapestry. A field of flowers.
There are no visions here, no sudden glimpses of the past that I have left behind. I half-expected to see Hermes, the god I invoked. I cannot see his face among the shadowy ones behind her.
She reaches out with her left hand, gesturing at the knife.
I take it from the table. I am not sure that this is what I wanted. Type in rituals for anxiety and end up here, a cavern trapped within your dreams, heartless and accompanied only by ghosts and an unremembered goddess. An Incubation in the Halls of Ivory and Horn to Find the Roots of Your Distress.
The map is centered over the Midwest, the place that I left — that so many of us left — and the contours of the Mississippi are so vivid that the thread of its waters almost seems to flow. Rivers are like the arteries of the Earth.
She gestures for my heart and points at the table. I place it there.
I approach the tapestry with the knife and look back at her. She’s not Inanna, not Hecate. Not Isis. Her stern face says everything it needs to. She holds my memories at bay, a dam without which my consciousness would be drowning.
I lift the knife to the tapestry and cut down.
Blood drips from the tear. I hack until I have made a hole around my hometown. The fields of asphodel suck up what pools below. I smell fresh-shucked corn, the perfume of the Mississippi, and the livestock farms. My heart yearns for those things. The oblong circle of fabric falls into the asphodel.
The Midwest is the Heartland.
The goddess approaches, my heart in her hands.
I take it from her and place it in the hole that I have made. It thuds loudly in my own chest, slipping into the hollow space my soul has kept waiting for it since childhood.
I am warm for the first time since beginning the dream. I can once again feel the sound of my own breath in my chest, the weight of the self.
How to tell your colleagues that you are having a handfasting. The yoga mat is soft beneath me, the incense thick in my nostrils. The cat is curled up at my feet. You stop haunting yourself, Tav. You stop haunting yourself and let the memories release themselves into the earth where you were born.