Wednesday, March 25, 2015                                                        Dreadful Joy

Swimming in the Ghost River

Painting: Paula Narbutovski

Swimming in the Ghost River


Ghost Deer

A dull thud, like an apple falling in late summer.

Out of mists that rise from where deep roots deepen among dead leaves and twig litter, the Ghost Deer appears.

It is blue as the moon and filled with dreams that swirl like milt. Its eyes dazzle. They are webbed as if with starlight and with the pulse of starlight. It acknowledges you with a soft nod.

What does it want? Why has it found you out here in the open field of your solitude? You thought you were alone here, as always before.

The coal-lump of its nose twitches, reading your scent. It nods again. You’re the right one.

“Come,” it speaks in a voice unsprung from sound, empty. How do you hear this quietness that fills your dark? “Follow me.”

“Why? Where are we going?”

“To the Ghost River.”

The answer is there, is gone. The Ghost Deer’s words unroll urgency. And this urgency opens wider in you. Out of the thinnest air, awareness arrives: you have spent your whole life asleep.

The Ghost Deer turns. Its hindquarters glow against the dark, a cloud riding the last light of the sun.

If you follow, the future collapses. If you follow, you know you can never come back to where you are.

You must decide. Are you the now that fills you now? Or are you the absence your next step fills?


Ghost River

You cross the field of human mystery, following the Ghost Deer. It’s a wide field and dark. The sky looks like a drowned kingdom, the stars watery reflections of a submerged city.

The Ghost Deer floats ahead pursuing green scents etched on the night.

The moon is a diamond hammer above the forest. It disappears when you enter the woods. Chains of moonlight among the trees restrain the dark.

Under those big trees, the Ghost Deer moves with the melody of a silent song. You hurry after.

The giants of the forest stand aside, and you find yourself before a broad river. The river’s black fathoms offer no light but for the moon, which swans on the surface.

Along the riverbank, fog rolls.

Not fog. Flocks of spectral birds swirl like a moonlit dust storm. Below them, herds of phantoms swarm. They flow through each other: cattle, swine, sheep, deer and buffalo. And no noise pounds from their hooves. No sound of their prodigious voices reaches you. They drink the dark wind off the river, endlessly moving.

“These are animals butchered without prayer.” The Ghost Deer’s dream voice speaks with emotional strength. “People killed them and gave no thanks to the Beast Maker. And so, they are exiled on the shore of wandering.”

“Why have you brought me here?”

The shimmering deer shimmers closer. “Do you know who I am?” Its voice in the congested shadows glows inside you, brightening your blood. “I am the ghost of the animals your ancestors killed with sanctity that your forebears might live. And you stand here on the ground of their blessing.”

“What do you want of me?”

The Ghost Deer’s voice hovers in silence, “You are the human animal brought here to bear witness.”


Dreaming Tortoise

Here is the Dreaming Tortoise. She is very old. To her, life is a slow dream, an endless blue summer evening. You know this the instant you meet her wet eyes watching you from inside her mossy shell on a stone shelf of the riverbank.

She touches you with her luminous telepathy, which shines a light down the long tunnel of your body. She sees all the thoughts that suture the feelings that rise in the heat haze of your flesh. She sees all of you.

And you see her. You see all the seasons of humanity in her memory: our African womb-time that delivered us to Ice Age winter, then our river delta spring, the giddy summer of Enlightenment that eventually followed, and now the fall of our manufactured world.

And there you are in the Dreaming Tortoise’s mind, tucked in the events of your life. There you are, oblique with ignorance. What do you know of the dead? You know little enough of the living.

Not to worry. Your brain may continue to sleep in its mysteries. She will waken your heart with her radiant telepathy.

Weightless omniscience lifts you to falcon heights above the Ghost River. Down you gaze upon the milling animal-souls on the shore of wandering. You see the ponderous slow drift of their sorrow, surging like the sea and as deep.

Upon the far shore, a circular glow shudders against the dark. A night fire? No. Your heart feels something stronger yet. Something untranslatable. This is the Sunstone. It is the little house of rock where the Sun retires at night.

Cross the Ghost River. Claim the Sunstone and carry it to the exiled ghosts of the abattoir animals on the shore of wandering. Do this, and those souls taken by people without thanks shall enter heaven. The Sunstone is the gateway.

But you must cross the Ghost River without a boat. The Sunstone will not abide made things. The door to heaven will never open to made things.

Can this be true? Are you the one to end the long suffering of the stolen souls? The very question returns you to the long tunnel of your body. You stare out at the wet, unblinking eyes of the Dreaming Tortoise.

And you know.


Sky Pony

Stars flutter on the surface of the Ghost River. The moon wobbles, and bright, widening zeroes riffle as you wade in. With blood warmth, the water receives you.

You will swim to the far shore. You can see the Sunstone from here, glowing softly under the nape of night. You push off with a confident breaststroke that fixes in your gaze that shining mote upon the far shore.

Ahead, slick water reflects the silence of space and a splatter of stars. They rise and fall with the ripples of your swim.

In the same way that dewdrops can light up like diamonds, the starry reflections on the slick and moving water harden. They glisten with the glint of dark hooves, shimmer like glossy fur, streak a tail, a flaring mane, and spark the brave intelligence of a horse’s eye.

Within the soft gel of that stare, awareness peers from alternate worlds. “What are you doing out here, swimmer?” The vanishing horizon within the eye pulls closer with curiosity. “You are not nearly strong enough to mount me. Why are you swimming in the Ghost River?”

“To get to the other side.”

“Turn back! You will drown. There’s an undertow ahead.”

“Who are you?”

“I am Sky Pony. Strong Dreamers swim out here to mount me and ride the glittering path of the Milky Way to the Beyond. But you are not strong enough to catch me. You will drown.”

You tread water. “Sky Pony, carry me to the far shore! I’m getting the Sunstone! To free the animal souls!”

On the ruffling water, the Sky Pony gallops. “I can’t help you, dim swimmer. You haven’t the strength to catch me. Let alone hang on even to the near shore. Keep calm. Swim back. And get a boat.”


Shaman Salmon

Bobbing in the Ghost River, you peer toward the far shore. Night paints the black water acrylic. The topaz gleam of the Sunstone beckons from among trees slender as Van Gogh’s cypresses.

Wisely, you turn away. You will swim back to the near shore and seek advice from the Ghost Deer. You kick, and a chill hand seizes your ankles. The river twists you backward. Your arms flail empty spirals, struggling against the surging current that pulls you under.

A song comes into your throat, your last breath bursting to get free. You swallow it. It won’t stay down. It tries to push out from behind your eyes!

And then, you are staring into a hooligan face. A salmon has swum up close. “Stop struggling!” his chiding voice teems. “The way up is down! Follow me!”

The instant you stop trying to swim, you plummet. The song of your life spins above you in crystal bubbles.

Gritting your teeth against the next moment’s grim inhalation, you bounce off the river bottom’s soft trampoline. You somersault through a cloud of silt and land in a kelp forest that sieves the current.

“Take hold!” A slippery flash of salmon sews a path among the leathery fronds.

You claw your way through that nightmare jungle and strain against the undertow. The salmon skims close to your ear and whispers encouragement: “As every ray of light is free, all darkness has design. Hold on. Keep crawling. You’re defeating defeat. A little farther. Okay, now. Let go!”

Your fists unclench the river weeds, and you rise. The salmon pushes from under.

With a wet gasp, you break the surface and inhale moony air. Rolling to your back, you gape at the breathing stars.

The salmon slaps its tail and declares through a pugnacious grin, “It doesn’t take a Shaman Salmon to see you shouldn’t be swimming in the Ghost River.”

When your breath finally fits words, you say, “The far shore… I must reach it.”

“Then, you better get yourself a boat.”


Dancing Goat

From out of the Ghost River, you slog to the shore where you began, and dawn lights up a fairy tale of summer castle clouds and witchcraft darkness in the forest. A black vibration of bats swirls overhead, dropping out of the sky’s attic and into the trees. You decide not to go there to dry out.

Oracular mists part where the fog of animal souls had stampeded in the night. You follow a dirt trace among tasseled reeds. It climbs away from the river and the forest of big trees. There in those woods, night has gone to hide.

Soon, the land opens wide, a broad page of geography scribbled with creeks. Mossy steps ascend to heather slopes. You sit and stare down on silver swerves of river.

“You there!” This fluting voice arrives from every direction. “Yes, you! Come here!”

And you are there, at a higher elevation, above the rocky margin of a failed forest. In every direction, flinty mountains fin the horizon. Myriad ice peaks pierce the sky, and their snowy stones chime with light.

You stare squinting across a chasm at a frozen wall of rock ledges. A goat prances on the glare ice. It leaps through the snow-dusted air and lights with supernatural grace on a round boulder balanced atop a pinnacle rock.

“I am the Dancing Goat,” the magical being announces, capering nimbly on its stone pivot. Fat as a bulging wine-skin, white fur tufty as feathers, churlish eyes cracked agate, it dances with tiny, agile hooves. Questions fall away, like the pebbles the dancing hooves flick into the abyss. “You can’t really tell where dreaming ends or reality begins, can you?”

“Ah-ha!” you realize, feeling reflective as a mirror. You’ve been dreaming since the Ghost Deer fetched you. Maybe far longer than that.

“What is a dream? Mind. And mind? Electricity in a brain made of atoms. And atoms? The atoms of your body are excited fragments of geometry.”

In the mind-mirror, you see all of time in one instant. The Dancing Goat is both glad and sad to meet you. Glad because you will figure out how to cross the river without a boat and the Sunstone will ignite soul-fire in all the slain animals. And sad because it sees, however long you may yet live, your life is already over.

When you move, the mirror shatters. So many selves reflected among the shards! In some, you remember this truth. In others, you forget.


Spirit Fox

Now it’s night. The moon runs like a dog among the clouds. You are lost.

How did you get here? Stony horizons vexed with thorn trees veer in every direction.

What do you remember? Wraiths of birds and phantom herds flowing through each other, their pain drained to silence in the world’s dark estrangement.

What are you going to do? The way back to the Ghost River is forgotten as dreaming is.

“Hey! I can get you there.”

Stenciled in neon fire, the Spirit Fox comes bounding. Psychedelic paisleys whorl behind!

She pulls up short at your side, sparks spitting from whiskers and ear-points. Her famous bushy tail with its lightning tip whisks brilliantly in the dark. And she smiles.

Yes, her smile exposes acetylene-sharp teeth, which should be warning enough. But you’re lost. In biblical darkness. And this burning bushy tail with smiling snout and tapered eyes of dreamy emerald offers help.

“Come on! Let’s go!”

The lustrous vixen sprints away. She lights a path deep as a summer lane velvet with fox-gloves. You follow. The drum song of her trot paces your heart.

Soon, you are exhausted. Under the pink bone of the moon, you squat to catch your breath. Oh, look! Your breath has run off with a kick, a startled chook!

The Spirit Fox turns and pounces. In a blur, the sly spirit shakes your breath free of you.

Breathless, you watch the Spirit Fox swell on the energy she stole from your life. She drinks space, bulging bigger. Her tawny fur strains like tight trousers until – with a whooping shout! – she jumps out of her skin!

Fur flies everywhere! And where the Spirit Fox had ballooned, now struts a bird with flamboyant plumage.

“Look at me!” An alchemist’s fantasy spreads iridescent black wings sheened with gold. Her slow pirouette displays breast feathers shiny as pearl under a lush red ruff, silver beak, and caviar-dot eyes.

“Foxes are boring! Freedom is a bird!” With a wag of her snow-bright tail, she lofts into the night and calls back with wicked glee: “The Ghost River, by the way, is in the other direction! Can’t miss it!”


Omen Bird

Atom by atom, you pull yourself together. It’s slow going. Atoms are so small and jumpy. And you’re dream-sick. The Spirit Fox tricked you, took your breath, your spirit, and left you vast and empty.

Time reaches you like thunder, long after the lightning flash moment has passed. Slowly, clumsily, you fit together the jigsaw pieces of you.

Radiant beings wiggle-waggle around you like bee dances. These are the engendering spirits. Or are they your dream-sickness? They taught Earth how to stitch DNA, weaving by feel plants and animals.

They help weave you by feel, chill and electrical. With strength and suppleness, they fit you back into this reckless moment, into the irreplaceable now of difficult longing. Or do they?

In sick dreaming, you are an emanation of death. You ray forth from nothing. What an erotic experience! Self and void!

Demonic desire strums dark power from the luckless event of your broken life. You grope like a drunken lover, feeling to be felt.

Slowly, clumsily, in your fetal enchantment, you fit together the hot pieces of you.

You are numb on the bone when you can finally stand. Wild crags surround you. Gray scree sparkles with diamond ice in the star heat of the faint sun. And a crystal moon hangs frozen in the day sky.

Upon that deep blue, a winged shadow turns and turns. The Omen Bird that stole your breath has returned! She descends in a flare of feathers, gliding by so close you feel the cold air ring. And you cower!

“Relax. I got fed up with a bird’s life.” She alights before you, heraldic plumage burnished black and iridescent gold. “I’ve had enough of flitting about as a feathery target for claw and fang. I much prefer being the predator. And what bleeds, I will bleed.”

“You almost killed me!”

“Oh, I thought I had. But look at you! Half a ghost and a flurry of life dust! You’ve had help, haven’t you? You must be doing something important for the bright ones to fit you back together. So, you’d best have your breath back.”

A blurred flap of her wings snaps her again into a Spirit Fox. And the gust drives your breath, your spirit, into the dreaming depths of you.


White Owl Goddess

While you roam the delta of dreams looking for the Ghost River, the White Owl Goddess looks for you. She covets all the talismans of power installed in your heart:
-     Ghost Deer’s quest courage, your Way Power in the spirit world
-     seer wisdom of the animal souls exiled on the shore of the Ghost River
-     oracle strength of the Dreaming Tortoise
-     clarity from Sky Pony
-     Shaman Salmon’s compassion
-     mirroring mind from the Dancing Goat
-     cunning of the Spirit Fox
-     knowing of the Omen Bird

The White Owl Goddess is looking for you, and when she finds you, she will rip you into fractal pieces and feed you to her young.

Where is the Ghost River in this dragonland veined with ice brooks? Winter has come on while you lay inert in the Spirit Fox’s breathless spell.

Snowflakes big as white quartz crystals glitter in the windy light. If you don’t soon find your way out of this treeless maze of tundra bogs, you will perish.

Among high cirrus streaks, the White Owl Goddess appears. Has she spied you?

Her wingspan eclipses the sun. Night wafts over you, and stars sieve time: light years and parsecs measure the nothing-dark between you and the furious freedom of the universe. From that lonely feeling, you know she holds you in her raptor’s gaze.


You dash across flinty tracts under the midnight shadow of the White Owl Goddess – and collide with a pincering blizzard!

Dazzling darkness and burning cold seize you. You hurtle into the smoky gale, a deadweight in the white wind. You will die!

Instead, you fly!

The Goddess has snatched you with her talons and hauls you into the far blue above the sodden wool of the storm. You soar across the sunny surface of the day.

In that supernal moment at the violet zenith under the swimming moon, peace comes. And beauty weds you to the moment.

The White Bird is your lover. You feel the truth of this. She can eat your heart if she wants and feed your pieces to her young. You belong with her in this lucid moment above the tilting earth.

And peace holds you.



White Owl Goddess surges higher into the sky, beyond blue and indigo, into the garden of galaxies.

Is this her killing field? Your whole body lights up with fear!

But Snow Owl is a goddess. She recognizes you. Like the vivid, engendering spirits who untangled you from the Spirit Fox’s trance, she knows you are not food. You are a love-gift of the Dream.

She shapeshifts. Slowly. Into the disheveled glory of night. And your waves become particles standing on the burnished shore of the Ghost River.

Nearby, exiled animal souls flurry and migrate on the broad embankment, fragile as fog and as beginningless and dense.

You throw your gaze to the far shore, seeking the Sunstone.

Its unearthly luster in the night spills a path on the river. For a dizzying moment, you peer at this glimmering road, surprised at the hard gloss of ice.

You laugh!

Everything that delayed you – nearly drowning, getting lost in the mountains, and then tricked by the Spirit Fox – everything that stymied you has actually advanced you to this dicey chance to cross the river without a boat!

You walk onto the Ghost River. Frost crunches underfoot. Wide panes of frozen water crack in starburst footsteps. Quickly, you tiptoe over the buckling ice. A giant step, a gutsy jeté, lands you on the far shore!

The Sunstone squats atop a gravel knoll. It is small as an ingot and almost invisible in its radiance, smudged to a shadow. You lift it easily.

Staring ahead through the Sunstone’s bright aura, you peer across the Ghost River. You catch sight of the Ghost Deer. Her phantom body dazzles into many overlapping spectral deer, a Cubist painting, a kaleidoscope.

What you observe is the Many Worlds – all the possible future paths you can follow back across the Ghost River. They appear like prism planes inside a diamond.

These chromatic reflections reveal every conceivable way ahead in your given life and all your potential lives. The Sunstone combs them with its rays.

Among the prismatic swirl of options, you spot where the ice gives way and you vanish in a slurp of black water. And there, among the many futures, you see spangled facets of time untangling the one slippery path that crosses the river safely.

Follow this track. Bring the Sunstone to the exiled souls of animals slain without consecration. Already you feel the Sunstone revealing its truth: The light you carry once burned deep in the stars. Now, that light is you.

# # #


Blogger shaun said...

A dazzling and spectral presentation neatly stacked in ten parts that each echo back to be read again. Thank you for this special gift of a story, my friend.

April 9, 2015 at 2:16 PM  
Blogger A. A. Attanasio said...

Life’s long history of voracity completes its work in us, where hunger opens into a greater dark than instinct. Thanks, Shaun, for recognizing the narrative continuity I tried to thread through that human darkness with the luminosity of fable.

April 9, 2015 at 5:37 PM  

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