Document and ritual
by Alexandria Searls
She wrote that there were spirits attached to the ritual, the spirits of those who had learned the words and the actions before, and then had passed them on. Centuries of adepts had breathed and died and now some of those souls assembled as the ritual was performed. Not all. By this time, some had grown tired of watching. They were genii. They craved the inside of a bottle.
Most wishes were made with a living soul too dulled to excite the dead. However, if you burned with spirit, the encased spirit of the embodied, you could wish for rain and seduce a genii. There would be the fresh, earthy smell and the uprush of humidity. The spaces between raindrops would turn black. The water would pool, the worms surface, the birds flock.
Her diary said that there were other spirits, too, neither dead nor living, who listened to the ritual, intelligent forces who had never been human—angels, devils, elementals, and others we couldn’t grasp in our thoughts, not yet anyway. Some of these spirits played in words, brought visions, and revealed your folly and your sins. You could limit which ones attended. “Good spirits only,” she would say as she defined who could enter the space.
She had been white and a citizen of the United States, and the woman who had taught her the ritual had been an immigrant from India, and the woman who had taught that woman had been from a long line of the initiated, from a wandering group of people she did not name, but who had lived in Utah.
Her teacher, from India, had been attacked in the street. A man had rushed at her, groped, and pressed her against a door. The door opened. Her future teacher clasped her waist and pulled her inside. The assailant fled; the rescuer listened. An initiation began.
“The start of my own initiation wasn’t as dramatic as that,” the diary confided. “I was chasing the wrong man. I had been cursed by my mother and my stepmother, and I couldn’t get the poison out by myself. I didn’t have personal power. One day I asked, ‘Can you help me? Do you know anything I could do?’ Because I asked, she told me.”
I sat on the hardwood floor with the diary, my upper arms squeezing my breasts forward, my hands on the pages, the binding just above my public bone. The diary had once been a simple blank book, covered with floral fabric, the cabbage roses of wallpaper. Her handwriting varied. Here it was scrawling and hard to read, particularly the r’s.
There was a diagram with patterns for laying out candles. There were arrows showing how to walk and how to anoint the candles and how to open and close the ceremony.
There was information on how to fast and how long. You became a candle; your fat burned.
“If you ask for a change, you must pay the price. A compass whirls within you, giving a new direction. You have to change to get the change. The change is painful.”
I glanced up at her bookshelves, her objects, and her art. She was gone.
She had been old. I was middle-aged, forty-three, and with a younger life than perhaps I should have had. I was the inheritor, and the executor. How should you be an executor of words?
“This is often the price of magic: You must see things about yourself that you will not like. The holy answers the humble.”
She was writing to herself, and not to me, but I could take what she knew, and use it. I got up and opened a drawer by an altar, perhaps the only altar. There were boxes of tapers of a variety of colors—blue, purple, and pink.
I shut the drawer.
Thanksgiving was coming, a ritual that had gone wrong. The birds had been bred until they were white and obese. People fought over them in supermarkets, tossing them this way and that in the freezer, pulling at the best one wrapped in plastic and netting.
I had seen a wild turkey in West Virginia, at a mountain top removal site. The turkey had been thin and brown and had emerged from a line of woods into the blasted and scraped landscape of coal collection.
I would do Thanksgiving instead, not the ritual in the diary—Thanksgiving with my cats and a simple meal and a thank you.
If she had been alive, I would have had Thanksgiving with her. We were not relatives; we were allies who gathered together. There was something binding in our relationship, a platonic knot. Friendship involved more freedom to walk away. Perhaps I was meant to be an acolyte.
I saw down again, on the same spot, and kept reading. She meditated while the candles burned and while she burned. When she meditated about her stepmother, a funnel opened up in her brain; her spirit descended and descended and she was falling as she felt the universe and her mind expanding and that her awareness was about to burst.
She realized, “I could die if I let myself go down there,” and she brought herself back up. It had almost been too late. She had gotten to a gateway that she had felt more than seen. The sight was of a curve, and vague.
There had been no drugs, only fasting and prayer. She told herself that there had been no drugs, as if she didn’t quite believe it.
“When my teacher arrived the next morning, she told me that she was glad that I hadn’t gone down. The same choice had been given to her, and she had travelled the complete way, but her situation had been different. There had been preparations for the descent, and her teacher had stayed by her side.”
“I did not ask any questions about her experience. I never did.
“That journey was never offered to me again.”
I shut the diary with a snap and placed it within my woven bag, for future reading. I felt alone in the room, and not as if spirits were around me, not even her spirit.
Taking only the diary, I left the house and locked the door. Her belongings wouldn’t be there much longer. I would decide where they should go, and why.
After they found their places, I would resign my position at the museum.
The compass needed to spin, but she had not initiated me. I would not steal words even if I held them. If I needed a ritual, I would write one myself.