Feral Narratives

The Raven Came with Poison Flowers
pastel on board

Trigger Warning: This post discusses suicide.

You can listen to my reading of this post here:

Once upon a summer moon, a doe stepped through the green shadows of the forest, her soft spotted fawn trailing behind in the safe room of her shadow. When they crossed the road, I was there, my breath quick with astonishment

My astonishment was born from synchronicity. I had only just begun creating this image of a fawn nestled in the trilliums, his mother returning to the place she’d left him, dreaming in the earth-light of woodland blossoms. 

Deepening the synchronicity was the meaning of the image itself, given to me first as a photograph that a friend had taken: a tender fawn amongst trilliums. That friend had just lost her adult son, and I was carrying her in my heart. They were the reason I was creating this image.

That sweet and delicate doe crossed my path with her little spotted shadow several more times over the coming days.  

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We use science to explain the world but sometimes that doesn’t work. We ramble through the esteemed halls in the House of Science and find explantations for everything. Until we don’t. Something comes upon us that tears us open with its incomprehensibility and there is nothing in that academic house that can restore meaning to us. 

We come then, to the cold doors in the basement of that House. They are its foundation, and they open to the Otherworld, to a place that has neither logic nor reason, where things are woven together in ways that make no sense. Our logical mind is often insulted by this realm, our sacred imagination delights in it. If we dare descend, if we dare to walk into the labyrinth, we may find the stories we need. 

All the world over there are stories, of Selkies and Chaneque and Underground Panthers. Of spirits and ancestors and angels. There are old stories, but also fresh ones, told with the immediacy and impact of first person. They are feral narratives that do not fit in the House of Science, and for this very reason we need them desperately. We need to be woven to impossible things, and intimately so. 

You could call me a collector of such tales. I treat each one with a sort of reverence. One of my favorites––perhaps because it is old, of indigenous origin, and from this land where I make my home–– is the tale of the “Underground Panthers”, recorded in Myths of the Cherokee by James Mooney in 1900. The story goes like this: 

One winter day a hunter was about in the woods when he saw a panther coming towards him. He was prepared to shoot the panther when the panther spoke to him, and immediately the hunter recognized the panther as one of his own kind. The panther invited the man to hunt with his group––seven panthers ambling about in the hills––and the hunter agreed. When they had killed a buck, the man followed the panther up a little stream branch to the head spring, where there appeared a sort of door. They went in. Inside the mountain it was summer, and there was a great townhouse and many panthers getting ready for a Green-corn dance, and it all seemed natural to the man. The hunter danced many rounds with the panthers, but then realized it was late and he needed to get home. Upon leaving the underground panthers he was once again in the cold of a winter forest, and when he arrived home he found a search party forming to find him. It was then that he discovered that he had been with the panthers for several days. 

And then: “He died within seven days after his return, because he had already begun to take on the panther nature, and so could not live again with men. If he had stayed with the panthers he would have lived.”

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On Saturday night I came home to the terrible news that a young teen in our community had taken his life. 

Only minutes before, I had been conversing with friends about tales of the supernatural and extraterrestrial. “If these things were true,” one friend said, “then everything we think we know is wrong.”

Let us make that assumption. Everything we know is wrong. Let us tear down the House of Science, for a day or an hour or three minutes of silence. Let us bend our foreheads to the Earth and listen for the feral stories she might tell us. 

Of a Selkie who slips out of his skin and dives into the ocean of the Otherworld, leaving us, bereft, on the sandy shores of our humanity. 

Or of the Underground Panthers, who have taken our sons into the realms of mystery, and will not give them back. 

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I had nearly finished the scene with the doe and fawn when I realized there needed to be a third thing. Raven stepped in, a dark fairy bearing her gift. I finished the piece, and put it on a shelf.

On Sunday I took the pastel down and showed it to a friend.  “It seems charming, you know, until you understand that the flowers are monkshood, aconite, poison. Then you realize that something is happening here, something you can’t understand, something that might not mean anything or might cost the doe and fawn everything.”

She told me she was learning homeopathy. That aconite is used for fear, and shock. 

I put the pastel back on the shelf and cried some more. 

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Once upon a time a woman visited my studio. Only she was wearing a wet suit, having just gone for a swim in the cold waters of the river. I welcomed her in. Truthfully my heart leapt at the sight of her, she was so beautiful. As she stood there, water pooled at her feet. I think she was embarrassed, was wetter than she realized, but looking into her great ocean eyes, I only wanted her to stay, for I saw what she was. She was a Selkie. She lives in two worlds. 

She had a son, and he is gone from us now. 

We buried him in the shadow of the great mountain, in a blue and subdued light. We were wretched in grief as we bore witness to an even deeper grief, the utter anguish of his family. We made a great circle around them and it was not enough. Nothing will ever be enough. But we brought all the threads that are woven through us, of our ancestors and our prayers and our dreams. Of great oak trees and forest spirits and all the Great Ones who have laid their palms of light upon our shoulders. And we wove our threads around them.

In that thin and blue earth-light of the forest, the veil seemed impossibly thin, and yet still impossible. We fell at its fringes, weeping. We ran our fingers against its gray gauze, seeking a handhold, so that we might tear it apart to gaze once more upon the face of our beloved. But we could not grasp it in our hands. The fibers of the Mystery are not woven thus. They skim across our skin then pierce our hearts, embroider our bones, then fly from our bodies and loop with starlight. In this way we are braided to river currents and woven to apple trees and knotted tight tight tight to each other, Until we are not. Death comes in and claims the body.

But even then, even when what silk that is left is diaphanous, woven in ways that don’t make sense, with incomprehensible patterns, even when a child is laid into the ground, there are these threads binding all the worlds together. Sometimes, once in a great while, you might lay your fingers upon them, and feel in your own body the song in the threads. 

It is as terrible as it is tender, and it never stops. 

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A few notes

The tale of the Underground Panthers is paraphrased here, but can be found in its full rendition in “James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees” published by Bright Mountain Books, Asheville, NC in 1992. The tale begins on page 324. This book is a compilation of James Mooney’s works previously published as “Myths of the Cherokee” (1900) and “The Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees” (1891). If you would like to read that tale in full, email me or comment below and I can forward it to you. 

There are many species of monkshood. The species depicted in my pastel is Aconitum uncinatumThe homeopathic use of monkshood is described here:

Aconitum: This remedy is recommended for emotional stress, anxiety, panic attack, shock, and feeling claustrophobic in large groups. It is an excellent homeopathic remedy for fear. People needing this remedy are usually restless and frantic after hearing bad news or after an accident. They desire company which may help them calm down.

(From https://www.homeopathystore.com/blogs/wellness-center/17313969-top-10-homeopathic-remedies-for-managing-stress-fear-and-anxiety)

Chaneque are land spirits from Mexico. You can read about them here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaneque 

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2 thoughts on “Feral Narratives”

  1. Stephanie, what a beautiful story and piece of art. I dont know the family personally but I have been thinking of them a lot since this tragedy and my heart goes out to them and all who are missing him so much. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Your story touches me deeply now, Stephanie, when this mama’s heart is torn open, and one of my babies is now in the earth. Your arms around me as I howled at the vigil are a comfort that, like this story, I may always remember.

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