Saturday, April 14, 2018

House of Refuge, Chapter 6

6 Brightsong
From the Great Tree, Willowwind brought me around again past the kitchens by the walkways between the buildings to the forecourt of Refuge.  At everything he’d told me, I felt confusion and excitement inseparably mingled. What he’d said would happen was like the fulfilment of everything I’d half-consciously longed for monthly in the Longhouse between me and the other boys receiving instruction. The thought of it happening in Arrowshot’s presence brought me up short. I understood more completely, now, what he’d meant when he said that in Refuge we were no longer father and son but brothers. I thought too of the love I was beginning to accept flourished between him and this man who was guiding me for the first time through the ways of Refuge. That I would witness whatever passed between them in the shade of the Staghorn Lord’s Great Tree.

That Yarrow too would be there.
And the man to whom he’d showed tenderness on the verandah before he looked up to see us.

I felt my heart reaching out to Willowwind. And saw in his eyes his heart reaching out to me.

The man who was already Arrowshot’s.

Nothing of ways down country had prepared me for this. My soul felt like one of the streams we’d forded on our journey to Refuge--crashing down its watercourse, turned aside this way by one boulder, that way by another.

From the forecourt, we entered the bathouse. Inside the double doors, shoes were lined up to either side. Baskets on shelves held clothing. Beyond the next doors, water poured from spouts on the wall into two steaming pools. In one, three men lay back, their eyes closed, their arms over the lip of the pool. In the other, two men half-sat, half-floated facing one another, their legs entwined as they talked, laughing, their hands cradling one another’s stands. It was less of a shock for having already seen the tenderness between Bowstring and his cousin. I was beginning, already, to understand that we’d left shame behind on the other side of the gate, as well as our down country kinships.

“We need no fuel for the hot water,” Willowwind said. “It comes as up as a blessing from the hills. In days long past, the pools were here before the building.”

In a room still deeper within, we left the steam and heat behind. A man hesitated on the edge of a pool into which two others encouraged him to plunge. Jumping in, he ducked, came up gasping, then relaxed into a motionless float. While Willowwind and I still stood there, all three emerged together and trotted back to the steaming pools behind us.

The hall on the other side of the forecourt, the building on whose verandah Yarrow had stood, was the great room where the brothers spent most of the waking hours they weren’t engaged in labour.

Cushions lay piled into corners and against side walls, where three men sat talking, and another reading. Stools and trestles were stacked against one wall, and wide boards like the ones I’d seen Yarrow and his friend carry in. A cabinet in one corner overflowed with palmleaf books.

The building opposite the entrance to the compound, with its own gate and its own garden court, and over which I’d first seen the crown of the Great Tree, was the sleeping quarters.

We paused by one of the carved gateposts at the entrance to its garden. Willowwind put out his hand to touch it. An intricate, not quite regular interlace pattern twisted around it. His fingers played over the serpentine ribbons of wood. Between them, tiny human figures played among the complex curves. Men stroked themselves, or lay in long chains with faces pressed to one another's groins, hands laid to chests, or fingers inside each other's bungholes.

Everything our classmasters had taught us we could do to pleasure ourselves, these figures were doing to each other. At the top, men danced around a flame that rose to the crown of the post, their hands joined, the muscles of their backs polished by years of touch from the fingers of men passing the gate. I couldn't take my eyes off the carvings. Willowwind's touch was habitual and unselfconscious, but I was also aware that he noticed my fascination and smiled.

"It's amazing, isn't it? It's over a hundred years old. A man named Hawkflower spent most of his life on the  carvings. He died when your kinsman-down-country Firesong was still young. Firesong finished it about twenty years ago." He ran his hand over the men dancing at the crown. "These are his work. And this chain of men sucking each other’s nipples that runs sunwise from here around the back." He put his hand on the small of my back as we leaned over to see the carvings where they twisted up the back of the column. "No one's ever wanted to try matching it on the other post."

He paused, then smiled more broadly. "It moves you, doesn't it?"
I felt my face go red but managed to return his smile. "Yes. Yes it does."

"Look at how perfect the hands are here," he said, pointing to a knot of men whose palms cupped one another's balls. He looked sideways at me and grinned. "But it's what they're holding that I admire most."

I felt a sweetly drunken churning in my chest and groin. My lunghi tented out a handbreadth in front of me. Willowwind's angled out a little less obviously below his flat, hard belly. "Aren't you glad you came to visit?"

"It's the best part of coming of age," I blurted out.

"It was for me too," he said. "I hear people still talk about me taking Refuge two New Moons after I became a man." He laughed.

I giggled. "I remember everyone said your mother kept trying to hold you back till the winter."
"Mother and her best friend made up their minds their children were going to be each other's first when we were still playing with blocks," he grinned. "Skylark and I were both afraid that if I didn't take Refuge right away, they'd push us into the same bed before autumn, and she had as little interest in being with a man as I did being  with a woman." He paused. "She didn't go up country to Women's Haven until the next spring. The pressure was off, once I was out of the running. We’re still close. We try to arrange our trips down country to spend time with one another when we can."

"I think you'll find Yarrow here," he went on, laying hand over heart in the same gesture  that all the men had used in  greeting and farewell, but then reached his fingertips toward my cheek. "May I?" he asked. I started to stammer, then silently reached my own hand out to his face instead. Our lips brushed each other and opened. Our tongues glided gently together like two otters finding each other in a stream. It carried me away, yet I struggled with anxiety--what if Yarrow emerged from the dormitory to find us like this?--and still with resentment over how tender my uncle had been toward Yellowwood. I was surprised to feel Willowwind gently pulling away from me.

"It's sweet to see you again, Brightsong. I remember you as a little boy , how you followed Yarrow alll over town like a puppy. He's been so happy you were coming to see him."

"He seemed busy with Yellowwood when we got here," I said, and then immediately regretted the pout I could hear in my own voice.

"I know for a fact he's been talking about your visit all week." He paused. "Go look for him. Supper's not for an hour." He brushed my cheek with a final peck and turned back toward the workshops.

Inside the gate, water splashed in a fountain I was surprised to find shaped like a woman's yoni. All around its edge someone had strewn flowers. At the end of the fountain nearer the gate, the water spilled from a lip and then into three channels cut into the paving stones. It trickled from there toward the plants that grew beneath the low brick walls around the forecourt.  Behind it, benches of pale grey wood flanked the door, under arbors where wisteria was just coming into bloom. The plain door was made of broad planks and showed no sign of a latch. It swung open silently with a light touch.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

A Queer Utopia, Continued: House of Refuge, Chapter Five

5 Willowwind

Brightsong walked into the workshops hand in hand with Arrowshot, his face all timid smiles and yearning curiosity. I expected them: Arrowshot had asked me months before to serve as his son's guide, and Yarrow had confirmed they were coming at Full Moon. I hadn't seen him in eight years. He had the set of his father's shoulders now, and the line of his jaw.
Once or twice a year I take my turn serving as a guide, more often than not to younger brothers or uncles, cousins or friends,  who make the circuit of Refuge with bored indifference--or else masking their uneasiness with a show of boredom--months or even years after their Coming of Age. We often joke about young men who needed to convey clearly how little interest they have in our life--and who then appear unexpected, on the excuse of visiting their kin, for all their indifference on that first visit, to take full part in another Full Moon a few months later.
Then there are the men, one or two a year, who arrive looking like they've come home at last after  a long journey through the Outerlands. It brings back the joy of our own first arrivals, seeing in the elation and relief of younger men something like what we ourselves felt.
And sometimes, the momentary heartache.
Yellowwood had been one such, Yarrow told us after he'd guided him around the compound, two years past. It was easy to fall instantly in love with such men. It wasn't uncommon for love-matches to come out of those visits, pairings that lasted sometimes for months or years once the newcomers had taken Refuge.
"Take care of my fine young son," Arrowshot said, laying a hand on his shoulder, and a hand on mine, and then corrected himself, “--my fine young brother.” There was loving mischief in his eye. "I think you'll find him a keen observer." The jest wasn't lost on the new man, who blushed like a ripe cherry. I felt a little sorry for the lad. I could see Arrowshot had been right about him. But it was only what he chose for himself, in his own time, that mattered.
I touched his heart, and tentatively, he laid his palm on mine. “We’ll start here, “ I said. “Some of us are out in the gardens. A few are preparing for New Moon. But here’s where we build what we need , and repair what needs replacing.” Starcourse was operating  a treadle saw while Elmroot and Brookstone fed a cedar log along the guide, shaving it into clapboards to repair the side of the bathhouse that wind and sun had weathered beyond soundness. They stopped long enough for me to introduce them to the newcomer. “Brother in Cernunnos,” they each greeted him. With less hesitation than with me his first time at the gesture, he put his hand to the chest of each man.
In the next shop, Broadleaf was removing clay tiles from their molds and glazing them for firing. I heard Brightsong’s breath catch for a moment at first sight of him and couldn’t but smile at his stammer as they spoke greetings to one another. No wonder in that. The kiln was already blazing, and Broadleaf had stripped to his waist. There’s no one in Refuge who wasn’t mesmerized by the sight of him when he first arrived. The poor man couldn’t wash, those first weeks, without being hailed by the stand  of every man in the bathhouse rising to greet him. Though he seemed unfailingly to enjoy the attention--as new brothers often do, in their hunger for our life. Or at least received it with good humour and grace, till we’d all come to take his beauty at least a little more in stride.
Not much more was happening in the shops. About a dozen of us were tending to undone work in the garden that day, and another six in the kitchens, preparing an evening meal substantial enough to carry us all through Full Moon.  From the back workrooms, I led him the long way around toward the Great Tree, along the path that overlooks the gardens. Below us, brothers were cutting greens for dinner, hoeing early weeds out of the rows, watering seedlings that wouldn’t thrive till the next rainfall. But it was the sight of Waterfall and Bowstring, in the shade of an arbor this side of the beds, that snared Brightsong’s attention.
Witnessing Brightsong’s astonishment, I could see the two of them through my young visitor’s unaccustomed eyes. Waterfall had thrown his spade aside, and the two of them were locked in each other’s arms, Bowstring’s head bent back, his mouth open, clutching at Waterfall’s shoulders, whose face pressed into the hollow of Bowstring’s neck.  A few men working in the garden looked toward them, exchanging smiles at the sight, or fascinated for the moment and stirred themselves, but then going back to their tasks to leave Waterfall and his cousin-down-country the unintruded freedom of their reunion. They hadn’t seen one another for three Full Moons. Bowstring’s unsteady attentions had cost Waterfall unhappy days--and cost those of us in whom he confided hours of listening to his hunger for a man he loved with so little reservation--with so little insight, some of us would say. It needed my hand brushing Brightsong’s arm to bring him back to himself. I led him on to where the path looped back toward the compound and  from there to the meadow of the Great Tree.
The bowers had already been set up and furnished, and our banners untied from the gate of Refuge and brought here for the night to hang from the lowest branches. As we rounded the rear corner of the dormitory I turned aside from the path to face him. “This is the holiest site in Refuge,” I began. “And it’s now that I ask your promise to say nothing down country, ever, of our life here--of Full Moon, of your brothers in the Staghorn Lord, of the House itself, of the ways of this place. Refuge depends upon this. Can you swear by Cernunnos and by all the Six to this?”
The lad nodded. He couldn’t take his eyes from the Tree. “Yes,” I said. “It’s Him. His living presence among us, above the grave of His beloved.”  At this, his face radiated surprised, unmitigated joy. Without hesitation, he took my hand and continued to gaze on the enormity of the trunk that the holy records say began its life six hundred years ago.
So I began to prepare him for what would take place when the Full Moon was at the height of Her nighttime journey, sending Her light down through the branches: we are sons of Cernunnos, all of us, but sons of Gil too--twice-begotten of the great seedflow that made a garden of this place. We gather around the Tree of the Staghorn Lord to offer Him our own seed, for He has now no hands but ours, no voice but ours, no heart but ours, no seed but ours. In our seedflow gifted to His roots is the continuation of His seedflow, calling His sons here in every generation. In His taking up of our seed into himself, we ourselves become Cernunnos. The seed of brothers long departed has become the strength of His branches, the greenness of His leaves.
This we do at Full Moon, as men have done since Cernunnos sent down roots to emrbrace His Beloved. We welcome you here and invite you to join us in devotion to the Staghorn Lord. As a newcomer, you may choose to stand aside, I added. If men return, it’s understood that they’ve come to take part.
I could see him struggling to take it all in. As almost every newcomer does. Especially those who’ve come to be united to a Refugetaker they’ve loved down country. But the wisdom of our elders in Cernunnos has always dictated newcomers should understand this centre of our life from the day they arrive. There’d be no profit to them, nor to Refuge, in delaying the knowledge. And new men who arrive just after their Coming-of-Age are less likely to shrink from the ritual, when they’ve just finished years of being naked together for their lessons in the Longhouse every month.
“Arrowshot will be here, as he always is,” I explained, as gently as I could, his hand still in mine. “As will I. And Firesong.”
“And Yarrow,” he added.
“There’s place for the love of two men for one another here,” I said, turning to face him and laying my other hand to his heart. “The bowers are here to shelter a couple who want to withdraw together before they make their offering.
“Or sometimes, three or four men together.” The more fully he understood in advance what he’d witness, and perhaps take part in, the less likely he was to withdraw when Full Moon began. And I longed for him not to withdraw. If the Staghorn Lord had ever twice-begot a son, it was this new man.
“But we never learned...” his voice trailed off.
“Never learned what?” I prompted.
“We never learned how to be with another man.”
I smiled encouragement. “You already know here,” I said, pressing my palm a little more firmly over his heart. “Everything you learned how to do to bring yourself pleasure, you can do to bring pleasure to another man. To Yarrow.”

I was falling in love with the lad. It felt a little like falling in love with Arrowshot, all over again.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Kanamara Matsuri

OK. So while some of us were celebrating Easter last Sunday, the city of Kawasaki, just west of Tokyo, was celebrating the Festival of the Steel Phallus. So named because a young woman rejected a demon who in revenge took up residence in her vagina and bit any penis that ventured in, until the resourceful heroine contracted with a blacksmith to forge a steel dildo on which the demon broke his teeth and fled. I’m not making this up. But if it didn’t exist, I’d have to. The current festival only goes back to 1969. It’s happy-making to know that when you need a tradition, you can always invent one.

Monday, April 2, 2018

From Richard Rohr's Daily Meditation

Make ready for the Christ, Whose smile, like lightning,
Sets free the song of everlasting glory
That now sleeps, in your paper flesh, like dynamite.

                --Thomas Merton, “The Victory."


For Christ plays in ten thousand places
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
                --Gerard Manley Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Death is Abandoned

Graydon Parrish (b. 1970)

Friday, March 30, 2018

A Queer Utopia, Continued: House of Refuge, Chapter 4

4 Brightsong

Arrowshot woke me not long after dawn the morning before Full Moon.  We had work in the shop and instructions to give his apprentice before meeting the others headed up country outside the Longhouse. A rucksack of bread and cheese and a corked bottle of ale sat by the kitchen door that Bracken had filled for us the night before. The walk would take two hours , not counting stops along the way.

I’d hardly slept the night before.  Yarrow’s face drifted before me every time I began to doze. The curl of his hair across his shoulder. The fall of the tunic across his chest. The thought of his arms around me, as they’d been that summer four years before. The feel of the stubble on his face against my cheek as we’d embraced before he left after the Coming-of-Age.

My dreams of what could happen between us up country had no more substance than the mist drifting down that morning from the hills toward the lowlands. I knew no more of the House of Refuge and the ways of its men than anyone else, man or woman, who’d never been there. I had only the story of Cernunnos and Gil that Firesong had told us, and the light it had kindled in me--though not, its seemed, in any of the other new men who’d come of age that day. There’s deep wisdom in the reverence around the secrets of Refuge--and almost always pain in learning them, at least briefly, for those who come longing for a life of companionship with one beloved down below.

At mid-morning, six others had gathered before the Longhouse for the trek--four of them men I knew only by  sight, the youngest perhaps ten years older than me, and friendly with the three others, who were around Arrowshot’s age.  The four were deep in conversation with one another.

I’d never have expected to see Amberleaf. He’d come of age with me; and was one of those who’d exchanged smirks the night of Firesong’s story. Next to him stood his older brother Bowstring, who I knew had made the trek before. Amberleaf looked up, met my eyes, ignored my smile of welcome, looked down again. Bowstring nodded to us both, but made no move to speak.

Arrowshot put his arm over my shoulder.  “Gathering for the trek isn’t always a friendly occasion,” he said. “Don’t be put off by it. Some men need the length of the walk to leave their life here behind. Some prefer to make the trip on their own. We’ll likely find at least two or three townsmen up country who’ve already set out on their own. ”

A few minutes later, with no more than a nod to one another, the eight of us set out--the strangers in the lead, then my father and I, Amberleaf and Bowstring twenty paces behind. As we crossed the bridge and took the uphill road, the distances between our three parties grew. The road rose, and the mist grew thicker, until it might as well have been just the two of us turning along the switchbacks.

“Your first time at Refuge will be full of things you didn’t expect,” my father said. “It is for nearly all of us.” He hesitated, then went on, “Being with Yarrow won’t be like your times together down country.”

I imagined I knew what he meant and smiled. Images of Cernunnos and Gil, sitting as Not-One-and-Not-Two, flooded my imagination. He went on, “You’ll have a guide this afternoon. Every newcomer does. Not Yarrow,” he added. “A newcomer’s guide is never the man he’s come up to visit.”

I puzzled over the anxiety I heard in his words. Did he imagine I didn’t understand that the call of the Staghorn Lord was the love between man and man? Did he imagine it wasn’t love of Yarrow and Yarrow alone that had set me on the road this morning? I needed no guide but Yarrow to welcome me.

As we walked on, it came to me like the shape of a mountain looming out of the mist that I had no idea who my father visited at Full Moon, other than Yarrow and Firesong. That Arrowshot had a life up country, if only at Full Moon, of which I knew almost nothing. Did he sit in embrace with a man whose name I didn’t even know as Cernunnos had sat with Gil, as I longed soon to sit with Yarrow? What did my mother know of this other life, in her good cheer at his monthly departure? And knew even less of her visits to Women’s Haven. This, too, was what it meant to have become a man.

The mist began to burn off about halfway through the trek. The road ran across a broad meadow dotted with great boulders. The four men ahead of us had already entered a sloping savannah of oaks at the far side. Then came another steep rise and three streams to ford. By then, the sun had flashed through, and shadows lay across the road. Around the bend after the third stream, the road levelled out again, and just ahead of us lay the gate of Refuge.

Arrowshot led us to a flat stone a few paces from the road and slung the rucksack from his shoulder. As we settled, Amberleaf and Bowstring overtook us. “We’ve enough for four,” my father offered.

“We ate just before we left,” Bowstring said. “Thank you, but we’ll head on in.”
I was just as glad to have our meal together, at the end of the journey, on our own. The stone under us now radiated the warmth of the sun, and we shed the quilted doublets we’d needed below.

“I didn’t expect Amberleaf,” I said.
“Their cousin is here,” said Arrowshot. He smiled and added, “You said no one else from your ceremony would come.” He broke the loaf, cut a slice of cheese for me, and took a swallow from the bottle. “Do you remember a new man named Willowwind?” he asked.

I thought back through childhood. “I must have been about seven. He came with us upriver for the Outerlands trading and helped steer the barges back down to town.”

“He took Refuge the year you turned eight. He’s never come back down country. I’ve asked him to be your guide this afternoon.  Asked him before,” he went on, “because I was certain you’d want to come.”

I remembered the smiles that had passed between him and my father that day, the hands laid on shoulders and on arms. And understood at once.

But yet had no words to acknowledge it. We ate in silence for a while. I heard laughter beyond the gate, and Arrowshot nodded toward it. “It’s important for you to understand that everyone who goes through the gate is son to the Staghorn Lord for as long as he stays. In Refuge, Yarrow is not your uncle. I’m not your father there, you’re not my son. Those are the bonds of the life down country.The other side of the threshold, we’re brothers.” He looked at me. “Does this make any sense?”

“I think so,” I answered.

“It’s why neither Yarrow nor I can be your guide, nor Firesong. Every newcomer learns the ways of Refuge from a man who hasn’t been part of his life down country.”

But you’ve picked mine for me,” I blurted out. “Your friend.”
He met my eyes. In his, I saw tenderness and more hesitation.“Yes, my friend.” He drank again from the bottle and offered it to me as he began wrapping up what was left of the rest. “He’ll be waiting for us at the workshops. But first let’s see if we can find Yarrow.”

The gate was rough, two unhewn cedar trunks sunk into the ground, with the trunks of two thinner, younger trees lashed horizontally with hempen rope, one above the other, to form a lintel. From these hung several dozen bands of cloth, all brightly colored. We had to part them to enter. My  father paused and turned back to them just as we’d passed through the veil they formed. “These belong to all the men living in Refuge,” he said. “At Winter Solstice every man takes down his old banner that’s faded with the year’s weather and ties one anew. Or once in a great while unties the old one and makes the decision to go back down country.”

As my grandfather had, I thought.
Arrowshot went on. “As we passed through, all these men took us as brothers, for as long as we’re here. Cernunnos took us for his sons.”

My heart leapt up at this simple act and my father’s explanation. Yarrow had touched me, through his banner. As had Firesong, and Willowwind, and the half dozen other Refugetakers I knew, or had heard of. And another thirty men I hadn’t met. My stand stirred along with my heart.

Inside the gate, the road led another thirty paces through a cedar grove and then opened out into a broad courtyard. Large buildings flanked either side, and yet another gate faced us, with a fountain beyond it and the facade of a third hall. Walkways led off between the buildings, and beyond the one on our right I heard the pounding of a hammer and the rasp of saws.

Towering beyond the gated hall at the far end, I saw, for the first time,  the upper branches of the Great Tree.

At the steps leading up to the door of the hall on our left, Boswtring stood with another man, their hands on one another’s hearts as they talked. The man he was with saw us, smiled, and placed his palms together before him in welcome, before turning his attention back to Bowstring. My father returned the greeting, and looked sidelong to me in encouragement to follow his lead. Two more men came down the path from the sound of workmen, carrying three long boards to the hall on our right.

One of them was Yarrow.

Carrying the planks into the hall and emerging again, they turned to each other on the verandah. The other man laid his hand on Yarrow’s heart as Bowstring and his companion had done. Yarrow reached up to cradle the man’s neck, and their foreheads touched. Only when they’d released each other did Yarrow look up to see us.

For a frozen, endless moment, I felt only confusion. And then Yarrow broke into a broad smile and ran across the courtyard to us.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

A Queer Utopia: House of Refuge, Chapter 3

3 Arrowshot
Just ahead of me, Yarrow walked beside Brightsong the rest of the way to the banquet hall, my brother’s hand continuing to rest lightly on my son’s shoulder. At the door, he squeezed Brightsong’s arm gently. "We'll have more time to talk at home," I heard him say. I could feel Brightsong’s flustered excitement. He’s adored my brother since he was old enough to walk; and Yarrow has not only loved the boy but been in love with him since the summer before he went up country. I’ve seen their bond grow all the stronger over the last years for the briefness of their reunions when Yarrow has come down from the hills. It was clear to me since before Yarrow himself took Refuge that Brightsong would almost certainly go up country in his turn.
The din in the banquet hall swelled as the whole town poured in. I saw Yarrow take Brightsong by the hand to lead him toward our places at a table near the far side, threading his way among families gathered around their sons, and young men and women mooning over one another at the prospect of First Beddings soon to come. Bloodroot  already sat next to Rush, in the seat assigned him with our family now that their Bedding had been arranged. Next to Bloodroot in turn sat my wife Bracken. 
Yarrow parted from my son to find his place among his fellow Refugetakers, the brothers whose kinship had replaced the blood ties he’d left behind. In their midst sat Firesong as eldest among them, flanked by the others in order of their Refugetaking. As Yarrow settled in his seat, I saw Yellowwood lean to whisper in his ear, and the two of them breaking into grins.
I moved through the hall receiving the congratulations of neighbours and took the seat waiting for me between Bracken and Brightsong. She took my hand and leaned toward me. “You must be as exhausted as I was yesterday,” she said.
“It’s not as long as whatever you all get up to in the Roundhouse,” I said. “But I’m ready for a good night’s rest.”
“If either of us will be able to sleep for the noise in the street,” she said. “Last year it was nearly cockcrow before everyone settled down.” 
“It’s fewer new men this year,” I said.
“Don’t be too hopeful,” she answered. “ It’s the women teasing each other that will wake us past midnight.”
The servers came around with loaves and the first steaming bowls. She smiled and leaned in closer. “Next week won’t be much better, with Rush and Bloodroot likely awake till dawn in the next room.”
“It’s sweet to see them so excited about each other,” I said. “There are worse ways to be kept awake. Do you suppose they’ll stay so devoted?”
“I hope so,” she said. “I can’t think of anyone I’d rather she was with.  And they’ll make beautiful children, if they get that far. As beautful as the ones we made,” she smiled.
“Are you sorry they’re grown so soon?” I asked. 
“Gods, no,” she laughed. “I’m ready for life without watching over them. As for Brightsong,” she went on,  leaning in yet closer to keep him from hearing  where he sat to my right, “if there were any doubts before today, seeing him with Yarrow ended them.” 
I felt a rush of warmth in my heart, and a stirring in my loins, at the thought of the love we’d seen budding for years between my son and my brother. 
“Will you take him up country with you at Full Moon?” Bracken asked, mischief in her eyes.
“Gladly, if he wants,” I said. 
“He’s his father’s son. Of course he’ll want to,” she grinned.
I grinned back. Not every man is blessed to have a wife who feels so little jealousy over his trips up country. In the nineteen years since our First Bedding, she’s never made a fuss about Full Moon. She’s kept the house and watched the children on her own without complaint--just as I’ve done when she’s gone up country to Women’s Haven at New Moon--not as often, but when Shekinah and Rhiannon have called to her. The love we felt for one another from the start has thrived for how lightly and open-handedly we’ve held it. Forbidden though it is to tell her any more about what happens at the Refuge than she can tell me about Women’s Haven, the hints we drop to each other have become a game that excites us both when the fire between us needs fuel.
She glanced across to the tables of the Refugetakers. “Firesong looks frail,” she said.
“You notice it more for not seeing him since he came down last year,” I said. “I’ve seen it month to month. But yes. This may be his last visit. He’s said as much.”
“He’s the last of my grandmother’s generation,” she said. “Saying goodbye tomorrow will be hard.”
“It probably doesn’t help much to tell you how happy he is. And what good care Ashroot takes of him.”
“It does, and doesn’t,” she said. “You know he taught me to climb trees? I adored him almost the way Brightsong adores Yarrow.”
“You’re still the first in town he comes to greet when he’s arrived,” I said. “And the first he asks after when I see him at Full Moon.”
“Sometimes I wonder why we can’t all just be together, all the time,” she said.
“Think about what it would be like, after a few months or years,” I said. “Think about how our own lives would have been different. Maybe like the story of the Six repeating itself.”
She sighed, brushed my cheek with a kiss, and turned to Rush and Bloodroot as they sat giggling together, and beginning to tease them about it.
As she turned, I felt Brightsong’s hand on my arm. My beautiful son. And, I was sure, a son of the Staghorn Lord, waiting to be twice-born. “I want to go up with you this month,” he said.
“I imagined you would,” I said and then hesitated a moment. “And I know how happy Yarrow will be to see you again so soon.”
“I think I’m the only one this year who will,” he said, and blushed.
“I’m willing to wager others will find their way up country eventually. At least once or twice.” I paused and then went on. The lad seemed to need the encouragement. “Every man goes when he hears the call, if he hears the call. Some never hear it. I’ve gone every Full Moon since before your were born, save just before you came and the three months after.”
He looked across the hall. “Yarrow heard it early, and strong,” I went on. “As did your grandfather.” 
It was time for him to hear. “Do your know your grandfather lived in Refuge for two years before Killian and Rashni called him back down across the river?”
The surprise in his face gave way to a broad smile. 

I longed to protect him from the heartache he was likely bound for, learning what he had no way yet to know of the life up country. I couldn’t predict what he might feel when he saw for himself but could imagine pain and confusion, seeing the longing in his eyes as he gazed across the room toward Yarrow. But no way to avert it. It sent some men back down country, as eventually it had my father. “It’s in our line, Brightsong,” I said. “It’s your inheritance.”

The Mystery is Not Made Clearer repeating the question, nor is it bought with going to amazing places.


Sunday, March 11, 2018

House of Refuge: A Queer Utopia, Continued

2 Brightsong

We'd received our instruction by torchlight in the Longhouse, one night a month from dusk till dawn,  since before most of us had had his first seedflow. Our classmasters always started a lesson by asking what we knew. Only later would they gently correct what we'd often gotten comically wrong from swapping inaccuracies and half-truths with playmates as our bodies and those of our sisters changed, catching glimpses of adults coupling through doors left ajar, experimenting among ourselves.
One simple lesson a night always became a game we'd play till exhaustion got the better of boyish excitement and we'd all collapse like a pile of puppies on the cushions spread around the Lingam on the dais. Soon after the start of our instruction, the classmasters began by turning the simple fact of our hard stands into a game: who rose fastest and highest --taking the sting of possible defeat out of the exercise by almost always coming in behind us themselves; seeing who could hold the weight of an apple hung from a cord. Later on, we learned to breathe deeply when touching ourselves; the varied subtleties of shaft and foreskin, ridge and head, balls and sac; the experience of waking up in a puddle of seed when they set us the challenge of not milking it out of ourselves for a week; what it was like to touch our bungholes and work a finger into them; how to bring ourselves almost to the point we couldn't hold back from seedflow, then stop and feel the flow of heat up our spines.
A grown man knows his own body, our masters told us. Between your legs lies the exposed tip of your heart. When you sleep with a woman for the first time, you'll never give her pleasure wholeheartedly if you don't understand the pleasure you can feel within yourself, by your own hand. Don't try to fly before you can walk. The wonders of women's bodies and how to touch them came mostly in our last months  of instruction. Then ways for men and women to feel pleasure together and still not make a child before they wanted one. In between the lessons of the body, we learned the chants for the births, weddings and deaths of sons and brothers and fathers and friends. We learned the circle dances for Equinox and Solstice, the Cross Quarters and Full Moons.
The House of Refuge story was one of our last lessons. It wasn't the classmasters who taught us that night, just a month before our Coming-of-Age, but Firesong, the oldest man living in Refuge. He was my mother's mother's uncle; my father named me to honor him. He came down from the House to teach us leaning on the arm of the younger man who shared his table and sometimes, I knew, his bed.
 He settled himself into a chair in front of the Lingam and looked around the half circle we formed seated around him. His white hair was gathered back taut from his temples, bound at the back of his head with a scarlet ribbon. Gold bangles glinted on his left wrist in the candlelight, and a gold ring in his ear. He accepted a cup of water from his companion, set it down on a low table at his side, and began the tale.
“In the First Days, when Killian, his brother Cernunnos, and their sister Rhiannon rose out of the earth,  and Rashni, her sister Shekinah, and their brother Gil descended from the peak of the mountain, they met by the River. Rashni saw Killian and loved him at once, and the Six made their home together.
“Flowers sprang forth where Rashni walked along the banks. Wheat shot up overnight from the soil where Killian had crossed the fields. Their joy in one another made the land fertile. They built a house with room for them all, and for sixteen months, the Six lived their life in common.
“But as time passed,  Killian and Rashni’s joy in one another made theheart of Cernunnos unquiet. He had lost the companionship of his brother to Rashni--just as Shekinah had lost the companionship of Rashni. He lay awake, tormented by the sound of Killian’s lovemaking that nightly opened the wound of his loss. He rose, and by the light of the Full Moon he crossed the ford of the river and walked up the slope toward the hills.
“As he passed,  trees burst into flower, and flowers turned to fruit hanging from the branches in a single night, but he had eyes for none of this. His face downcast, he glanced neither to right nor left, and imagined himself alone in his grief. He saw neither his sister Rhiannon, nor Rashni’s brother Gil and sister Shekinah at a distance, each making their way by an isolated, winding path across the same rising terrain, unknown to the others. In the midst of a meadow, he sat down, huddled into himself, and wept. As his tears fell to the earth, fragrant herbs sprouted around his feet.
“He made his way again to the house in the first light of dawn. But as he crossed back over the river, the grief in his heart turned to stone, and crossing the threshold, the love he felt for Killian lay cloaked in resentment toward him and toward the woman who had stolen him away. So also, the bitterness of Shekinah for the loss of her sister Rashni, and the loneliness of Rhiannon and of Gil, crept into the house like a smoke that curls across the threshold and poisons the air inside. So too, Killian and Rashni grew impatient with the others, only half-comprehending the causes for the discord that had come into their life together.
“Nine months passed, and Rashni gave birth to the twins from whom in turn all the People spring by first begetting and first birth. As Killian and Rashni turned further  inward toward one another, and toward the children, their sisters and brothers wandered further afield. And in the light of yet another Full Moon, crossing the river and going up country once again, his heart aching for Killian, Cernunnos found Gil. Seeing one another anew in that light, their passion for each other was kindled, and their souls entwined to become one. The heart of Cernunnos softened once again, and the heart of Gil was came back to life.
“From the fire of their hearts and loins sprang all the pleasure that a man may feel within himself, and that men may feel with one another. Settling onto the grass, they embraced each other in the position of Not-One-and-Not-Two: Cernunnos sat with his right leg over Gil’s left, and Gil sat with his right leg over Cernunnos’ left. Pressed together from cock to forehead, they shared their seedflow for the first time.  From midnight until dawn, it ran in rivulets from where they sat, belonging to them singly no longer, but indistinguishably to both, and from it as it mingled and flowed, all around them sprang up a garden. Vines grew up the trunks of the trees and hung with sweet grapes. As they went on rutting for each other, from their foreheads grew the horns of stags.”
Firesong fell silent and looked slowly and deliberately around our gathering. Some of us looked down, unwilling to meet his eyes. Some returned his gaze with neither embarassment nor particular attention. Two boys smirked at each other and snickered, until they fell silent under his glare. And then his eyes met mine, and softened with a recognition surpassing the kinship that bound us together as family. Mercifully, he seemed not to notice that I had to lean forward and pull the fold of my lunghi up to conceal the stand I’d sprouted while listening to the tale.
At last, he went on.
“Of Shekinah and Rhiannon, our tale tells no more. Just as the tale of Women’s Haven tells nothing of the garden that sprang from the first great seedflow of Cernunnos and Gil. By the light of day, they fed on the fruits of their garden and began to build for themselves a hut from stone and branch. By the waning moonlight of each night, the joy surging from their bodies sustained the garden they had created. As the walls of that first House of Refuge rose, vines thickened over the stones, fixing them in place without mortar, and strengthening the roof.
“Descending at last once again to the house across the river, they saw in the eyes of Killian and Rashni alarm at their appearance.  As they entered the house, their staghorns knocked against the lintel. When they tried to put on fresh shirts, they snagged on the sharp tips. So they took to going naked from the waist up, until winter came on, when they wrapped themselves in loose shawls from shoulder to waist. By the next summer, the twins as they grew began reaching out to grasp their uncles by the horns, and squealing in delight to rise into the air as they held on while the two men spun around the room.
“But every Full Moon, Cernunnos and Gil would return to the House of Refuge they had built for themselves and one another, and to the garden that their passion had made, to nurture it again from dusk to dawn with the seed their joy in each other brought forth.
“And this was their undoing.  For under the Full Moon nearest Autumn Equinox, as they made their way along the winding trails that led up country, Killian had set out as well across the river with his bow in search of game. And as they approached the garden by their separate paths, Killian, mistaking Gil for a stag, pierced him through the breast with his arrow. Gil’s life ebbed away as Cernunnos held him in his arms, but not before he asked his beloved to bury him in the place where they had found their joy in one another.
“As Killian approached and saw what he had done, he threw down his bow and fell at the feet of his brother. Together  they wept over Gil’s body until it grew cold with the rising of the sun, and together they carried it to the midst of the garden, dug a grave with their bare hands, and as the sun sank again toward the west covered the body of Gil, who had descended from the peak of the mountains, with the earth from which Killian and Cernunnos had arisen. And from that day on, Cernunnos refused to return to the house where Killian and Rhiannon dwelt, though Killian came up country, and gradually the hearts of the two brothers opened to one another again, yet never again as they had before the slaying of Gil, before the love between Killian and Rasni had flourished.
“In this way many years passed, and still Killian came up country, and still Cernunnos declined to return, until at last his brother persuaded him to make a visit to the river house. As they set out to descend to the river, Killian was first to turn his face toward the trail down country. But sensing after a hundred paces that his brother had not followed, he turned again,to see that Cernunnos’ feet had taken root into the earth above the body of his beloved. By the time Killian ran back to embrace him, the white hair across his bare chest was thickening into bark, and leaves had sprouted from his stag horns, which now began to branch and lengthen.  His human face remained. As Killian gazed into his eyes, he saw that it was become at once the face of his brother, made young again, and the face of Gil whom he had slain, until the bark closed over it as well, and he planted a last kiss on what had been the lips of his brother and of Gil.
“From that day to our own, men who have felt the call of Cernunnos and Gil have gone up country at the Full Moon, to gather around the Great Tree, then going down again to the life of Killian and Rhiannon, or else to take Refuge and make their lives with the men who become their brothers in the Staghorn Lord of the Dance.”

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Only Sane Option

Sometimes, the only sane option is giving up church for Lent.

For the forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, much of what you’re likely to face in many congregations is a variation on “Daddy, we’re really sorry. Please turn back into the good parent.” Personally, I’d had enough of that by the age of five to last a lifetime, though I wasn’t healthy enough to recognize it till my late twenties.
It doesn’t have to be thus. The Ash Wednesday service can manifest a singular beauty and intimacy. Done well, it affirms that our mortality, seen through a different lens, is the gift that allows us to recognize our life as a fragile and infinitely precious treasure, not of our own making.
“Repentance” is a lousy translation of the Greek word metanoia, which ought to mean something more like a transformation of the mind. Every time I hear “repentance” as a gay man, I pick up the whiff of Jerry Falwell, the 700 Club, Westboro Baptist Church, Anita Bryant, and on and on. And on.
The Anglican church I attend in Toronto is a wonderfully inclusive place, in a well-meaning liberal kind of way.  A rainbow flag’s been draped out of the baptismal font with the best of intentions this Lent--though I confess my gut reaction is “Gee, that’s so straight of you.” But the language of the services for the last three Sundays has reverted to the rehearsal of a catalogue of our misdeeds.
I’m just not feeling it.
I knew this morning that I’d find my friend G, a smart, progressive former Roman Catholic priest, at the early service. I can always count on him to get it when I share my misgivings around the stock church language and ritual detail. I know his own struggles to stay connected with a flawed tradition resonate with mine. He’s the best of fellow travelers and a source of strength.  
I timed my arrival for the end of the service but walked into the middle of Communion, with most of the congregation spilling out randomly from around the altar and down the chancel steps into the middle of the sanctuary. I took a seat at the back, hoping to find G free on the spur of the moment for a late breakfast.  And then the last hymn started up, a West African song introduced by a wonderful riff of Nigerian highlife guitar twangs and accompanied by a bunch of eight-year-olds on tambourines.
Despite my conscious effort, I hadn’t missed out on the service. I’d arrived just in time for what I needed from it, after this group of seventy or eighty people--some of whom I’ve know for twenty years, some of whom I recognize by face, some of whom not--had celebrated Mass on my behalf.
I connected with G in the middle of the usual schmoozing vortex. We adjourned to the breakfast joint down the street and spent two hours commiserating, somehow shoring up each other’s conviction that being part of the frustrating mess of life in a congregation is still worth it. Comparing notes on movies we’ve seen recently, especially Call Me By Your Name. (Timothée Chalumet---OMG; Armie Hammer, hot, yes, in dude-bro mode, but what were the screenwriter and director thinking?) Mooning over the waiter,  back from two months away with new piercings. Agreeing with each other that the priest in charge of the parish would look great in a kilt. Talking about what a good Lent could look like, imagining ways to suggest something better for next year.
A pretty good Third Sunday in Lent, all told. I guess I don’t need to know how I’m going to handle next week for another seven days.