A Certain 1950’s Platinum Blonde Starlet Murders Her Inner ‘Good Girl’, Who Has Become Boring Anyhow
A fortune teller at Venice Beach wearing green eyeliner, holding bits of sand, took note of my ever-present suitcase & warned me that because my Venus is in Scorpio I will always be an obsessive temptress doomed to misery.
I can lie to myself and say that these men mean nothing, but that’s what therapy is for. And I am that woman who has seen Death’s made up face looking back in the mirror, honey. And I am the woman who amended the memoirs with a bibliography & sewed up my skin with thin black thread after giving pieces of myself away. I still have the keloid scars to prove my humanity, as I compile lists of who was and wasn’t & who my mother should have warned me about.
It’s time to murder the good girl with knives from a street vendor, in a Hollywood sacrifice. No one wants me to be witty or morbid, but pure hearts are eaten unabashed at the local diner along with strawberry milkshakes & I don’t want the delicate parts to sting. My relentless traits are at odds with finance & meaningless sex but Retrograde is moving into my facial tension & contemplation in the ruins of my eyelids. The sharks are chomping my good girl at the throat & I don’t want her to suffer.
“It was said that they were descendants of the god of war, Ares, and the nymph, Harmony. They worshipped Artemis and were fearsome warriors…the idea of the Amazonian matriarchy was disturbing to ancient Greek society.” – The Wordsworth Dictionary of Mythology
They stole my land & burned me heretic, but I did not die.
Blow to the face & the goddess of fire channeled
her way through my switchblade. I rose up, mother dragon,
& breathed my anger flat line. Touch me, I’ll be your suicide. I’ll curse your very heyday.
Alone? Am I alone? Why yes, isn’t everybody?
1 year in the desert fighting sallow-skinned enemies, my ferocity
shone like glass shards in river water, ruminating clutter.
Feared throughout the plains and marsh lands, mediocre men
choked violent on ale at the mention of my name, desiring the taste
of my slap. For the lies of lovers rage-awake, I unleashed
wooden clubs & fists, adrenaline pounding.
This is how I came to rule the Amazons, queen honeybee,
the stinger-sword-throat-slitter. I cut off one breast to better
shoot a bow and arrow in battle & never was I more of a woman.
– Andrea Grant
It has always been about blood with us.
Fingers caught in car doors,
bleeding hearts, torn cuticles
Bite your tongue.
As though our bodies were so close
we shared the same blood.
I don’t know where I end
and you begin so
leaving you is a hemorrhage
when I was already anemic to start with.
Blue Night, New York City
I split my head open
on the edge of the bookshelf
while I was dusting for fingerprints
thinking of how you kissed me
on Varick Street
in the blue night. Farewell
with The Warriors wailing in the background
I knew then that
your absence would be this concussion
bruised frontal lobe.
I knew that I would go back
to spray painting graffiti
on the walls of my apartment
with a new kind of longing.
Boyfriend As Garment
You are the prettiest man
I have ever seen &
I don’t hear the way you fight anymore.
The hallucinations are coming on
& right now you’re turning into
a beautiful bolt of fabric.
It’s time to dust off the sewing machine.
I want to wear you on my body like a vintage coat.
Your hair can be the fur trim.
Our bodies fit together so well,
I won’t even have to adjust the pattern.
My brother has the same restlessness as me, the same slipknot shoulder blades. He leaves when he’s not happy. He’s the crusader who warns against perpetrators. No one assails my bloodline. His rage submerges inside me, the shade, the shadow. We argue about origins; he squints and says, “There’s a cobra sticking out of your forehead.” This means the Devil’s hanging near me. I say, “Perspective. Serpent as goddess.” My brother was born in the Year of the Snake, but we are both circular shape shifters, death and rebirth. He says, “Evil watches you as much as good.” Don’t you know? Can’t you feel it? Yes. It is why I can’t sleep before daylight, creeping around elderly apartment, odd creaks in the ceiling. It is why I collect amulets, a series of hexes. We talk about our childhood, enraged and close to weeping. “Maybe in this life I’ll figure it out,” he says, “So I won’t have to do it again.”
The eighties had a depressing element of missing girls with their hair parted down the middle who would never come home. Anguished parents. I had the sort of parents who warned against getting into cars with strange men & wearing cosmetics too young, a come hither odor. Clifford Olsen a household name in horrific bedtime stories of strangled teens, don’t take candy from anyone, razorblade apples. The price for being a girl was to always look over one shoulder while riding your bike, to never go in the woods alone. Photographs of weeping women, shredded clothes & the bloodstain of rape in the air like metal. I saw their faces in my dreams at night – they whispered, “Be careful.” I grew eyes in the ridges of my shoulder blades, fine-tuned instinct. The dead girls gave me a mask of indifference, to hide the adrenaline scent of fear that I might be a crusader. It has made me hard. This archetype is dangerous to predators – the cold expression of the huntress before the weapon is fired.
Don’t Worry, Dad—If I Didn’t Kill Myself By Now, I’m Not Going To
You’ve been up all night performing sagebrush rituals
because your brother’s son is dead
an all-too-familiar Pacific Northwestern winter’s tale
& you’re calling across the continent to make sure it won’t happen to me.
Desperate please for righteousness, I hear that strain in your voice.
It’s why you became a medicine man, to heal.
Cutting your hair in mourning and placing it on the coffin,
I have cut some of my own strands in sympathy.
Daddy – I didn’t kill myself when things went wrong
even though self-murder runs rampant on our Island.
If it was going to happen I’d already be gone, buried in the forest.
But I’m too in love with my cell phone to die.
Promises of who may call & wake me up
from that restless sleep, the ghosts of old lovers…
I wait for those flashes of beauty lighting up the city streets.
I’m not 17 anymore
I’m over the worst of the melancholy.
I’ve already valley-of-shadowed with dark under eye circles
& come through the other side, a survivor of melancholy.
Now I can lecture all the sullen teenagers in their camouflage armor,
remind them not to drink that bottle of bleach,
leave the razors in the bathtub, stop fantasizing about bullets
blasting brightly through the head.
There is something beyond a land of tidal waved natural disasters
& endless grey horizons.
There is something beyond the dark, rainy days of high school.
Lay down the knife, kids: Steel is so cold to the heart, after all,
and death is not that romantic.
It is possible to crawl out of a war with shattered kneecaps.
There are medicine men who can cure you.
Dream Poetry Instead
You rest so still during the precipice of night,
peacefully articulating the sleep-talking language of dreams
at the edge of blue water, while the burnt-orange sunrise approaches the West Coast.
This California desert heat.
I decipher your words & rehearse
the things I want to say when you’re awake…
But I cannot always speak when my heart burns through my vocal cords.
It’s a strangulation that made sense in the congestion of New York City.
I’m changing. Fast.
This otherworldly kind of love shifts perspective & my bones quiver with recognition
as I look into the mirror of my own soul.
By dusk, my voice has altered once again. You have altered me.
This is so…This is so unlike anything I’ve known before,
channeling the mythic romantic archetypes of past lives,
modernized for the 21st century—an arena of disambiguation.
Once, you would have been the Mark Antony to my Cleopatra,
but now you are the Richard Burton to my Elizabeth Taylor. Modern love, chaos averted.
And so we surrender, together.
You walk into a room & I feel you before I see your startling eyelashes…
blazing as though you’ve just walked out of a fire, unscathed.
My Dream Warrior. Killer-Beloved.
You sing my body free of saccharine and leave the salt.
& so my bones quiver with recognition as I look into the mirror “my shadow-twin, my next of kin…”
We—the broken-hearted, hopeful cynical romantics.
We—the tentatively hard drinkers, the smokers, the kind & weary sinners
wizened eyes within deceptively young faces & excellent posture,
intermingling moments of tension & tenderness.
We are not the first. We will not be the last. Historical love. Modern love.
How I want to pour it all into you,
through fingertips, skin, the shredded morning vocal cords.
How I want to carry your scent on my neck like a decadent perfume,
bathe your broken heart in saltwater tears and sew it up again.
How I want to wrap around you so tightly that it destroys every nightmare.
Eating the Young
At a museum lecture, the statue of Ugolino from Dante’s Inferno
sweating beads of marble, surrounded by sons
in various stages of age 4 – 14.
Condemned by angry gods to eat his young, and they go
willingly…the dark myths no one wants to talk about.
A college professor with a brain so bounteous
it made his plain face handsome,
telling of Medea, who ate her children in revenge
against the husband. “You should write about that myth, Andrea,”
he said to me on the eve of his wife’s childbearing,
and I would have run away with him in that second if he’d asked me
as I wondered at procreation’s martyrs –
who devours whom, as embryos steal
their mother’s fingernails, as parents feed off their young
in eternal sacrifices of love & redemption.
– Andrea Grant
“Write something about this,” you said in the car, violin strings the sound of longing & I was lost in a cerebral vortex of past & future & the constellations of wolf spirit. You claim to be tattooed on my back in black ink. Your hands on my skin are as warm as bathwater, at a level that doesn’t drown my esophagus, Pythagoric triangles – how you + me = we.
I lost you last time somewhere between papyrus & warfare, when the white corporate men killed all the Indians & Mother Earth wailed. I let you in the labyrinth of my head where gods live & men fear to tread, and you clawed up my neck with echoes of scars that have been there before. These lines will never be as beautiful as when you look at me. You sleep with your reddened mouth soft like raspberries on silk sheets & fur blankets. I don’t know how to cover the purple of my throat when daylight cloaks the night.
If I should die before I wake, this time bury me in a sarcophagus of carved wood and mint leaves & I will inscribe your eyes in my sacred Book of the Dead.
Flowers in the Attic
I predicted you would miss my scent
so you wore my clothes to bed for a week
and left me naked on the West Side
while you haunted my closet,
let the moths eat my fur coats
and hung flowers in the attic.
I turned into a statue
and men threw money at my feet.
You collected the bills – fifties & hundreds –
& made the fortune you always wanted.
He spoke the lies of religion
& I began to bake – cookies, cakes –
it became a midday crescendo
& I gave it all away to young children
and warned them not to become like me.
“Redeem yourself”, he said to me
but I was dead & suddenly everything
began to burn – the butter went beyond
caramelized – the chemistry was wrong &
no one would eat the blackened sacrifice
of failed promise & I had no choice
but to annul & regain some colour in my face.
In dreams I swim freely
in turquoise water and we are on perpetual holiday,
the elaborate leaves of cigar skins wrapping around your fingers.
Your voice is different in Bermuda or Barcelona or Italy, a baritone I recognize
as burnished by tropical places we have not visited yet.
You’re a California gentleman who has trouble with the heat, and I am a Wanderer
who can never get enough Sun or Rain in an ever-shifting landscape.
Yet, your heart is lighter in vague foreign places, where you do not resist sleep.
In the dark, you reach for me as a constant force…I have always been galvanized, with an insomniac’s brain.
Early mornings, you vanish into fatigue, and wake wordlessly.
During these in-betweens, the sky is formless and melts into the ocean.
We wade up to our shoulders, a place where afternoon never dares to turn to Twilight.
I tell you not to worry and propel you off to work because my spine is made of steel. In “real life” (wherever that is),
we carry so many nuance within ourselves. Some catch glimpses of that which others are blind to.
I focus on being “blank” while music streams through my brain. A necessary logic.
GALVANIZED. Meanwhile, my Pancreas attempts yet another great battle—which I intend to win…
My father was a vampire & I get this from him:
dread of daylight, sick morning quease. It is why
I fight for things I don’t want, this compulsion for elixir.
Limbs shake & I am vile pressure sky. So ill
I cannot even prepare coffee-grounds ephedrin
for that liquid injection. He has given me a necklace of bones
& crystal. Evil will not dare touch me.
My mother slept too much, retired to bed in
midday comas & I tried to revive her with forceful tea
but no mechanism worked. Four o’clock was the saddest hour –
no lamps on & silence corrupting. She has barely aged,
all these years & people say she’s a lily-skinned witch
with milk baths & smokey spells. Agelessness was her gift
We lived in a city of sugar cube buildings,
wet ruins dissolve. A doll’s house, scratches on
the furniture and a little toy brother. I learned to cast veils
of invisibility & nobody could see resemblance in feature.
In those years, my bones were made of powder.
ANSWERING MACHINE INTRO
“I put Hawaiian Tropic tanning oil on before bed
to remind me of the vacation we’ve never gone on.”
HEX (A Sort of Werewolf)
You put a hex on me…
We ended as everything ends eventually. 30 days later, I said 30 days later, I awoke scratching mad, animalist penchant. My skin began to itch once you were gone. There is no one else to accuse. I was so used to your pigment.
I got it bad, you don’t know how bad I got it…
You put a hex on me…
You used to study Egyptology, Osiris and Isis, the Book of the Dead. You used to draw hieroglyphics on my bare shoulders, running fingers over scars, mapping my follicles.
Now you’ve put a hex on me & I don’t feel human. The moon tides are running in my blood – a wolf is rising up inside of me, skeletal lines shivering under honed muscle.
I got it bad, you don’t know how bad I got it…
You put a hex on me…
This hex is doing some crazy things. My eyes glitter silver. I itch ribs, the length of arms, stomach, and curse your knowledge of alchemy. You used to turn lead into gold, and now you’re punishing me. I can’t get you off my skin.
You put a hex on me…
My fingernails are destructive; I have weeping cuticles. I’d like to show you what you’ve done. Naked, would you recognize the taste of my skin, the altered texture? This is one bad break up. Night wears heavy upon me, white magnet & I could razor you in half. I am a sleepless metal shadow.
I got it bad, you don’t know how bad I got it…
I Killed The Poetry In Him
I killed the poetry in him. It was not on purpose. I had never known a man with such delicate spell-caster hands and ironic tone. His eyes were so pale, pupils enormous. He was a mystic. He loved and hated me simultaneously. I still have the poems he sent after I left, telling me that gods and children live in my eyes. For two months he wrote incessant. And the damned say goodnight. How I murdered and resurrected him every night. He called me lovely and hard. When I last checked in he’d stopped writing, as though he’d exhausted his passion on heartbreak. He’s studying martial arts now, in an attempt to discipline. He was furious when he realized I wasn’t coming back, that the city was eating me alive and in that death I found new words. He burned into my skin like a ritual. And the damned say goodnight. There are moments when I can’t move past the tragedy of it all. How I killed the poetry in him.
– Andrea Grant
It Has Always Been About Books
It has always been about books
because what else is there
but shapeshifting pages & alchemic secrets
so if you said, ‘I can read you like a book.’
I would wonder what kind.
Graphic novel, torn paperback, or maybe
1st edition paperback. But I read more
like a comic book – absurd & full of cliffhangers.
It’s becoming obvious that I have a Messiah complex. Now I can have the religious groups attacking me as well as the intellectuals who will undoubtedly comment on my shocking sense of entitlement. Is it the drowning experiences or the emotional deaths that have caused this sense of immortality? Therapy isn’t working – I’ve analyzed the analyst, and he’s way too Freudian. A Messiah is a prophet, therefore there have been and will be many who claim the title. Maybe it’s time for a girl Jesus to come out of the tomb and be persecuted.
The bones of my ancestors burned beneath my ankles, and there was a certain amount of regret. Their lost tales ignited the air: “Speak for us, for we have no voice.”
All the things documented, all the things insinuated and never written down. Their blackened eyes, cheekbones carved into the stone of forgotten prayers. Eyes. The eyes always tell the truth, and silence is also an answer.
I found a way out of cultural abandonment through an enchantment that would impress any Grimm brother, casting a veil of invisibility so that I might escape my entrapment. Swift of foot, I drugged the guardsmen of our house with plum wine. It was so sweet, so adamant. He slept for years.
Dancing shoes threadbare (only the young and the overly ambitious can stay out all night), but there were several handsome princes lingering in the bliss-dream among those who had not yet learned cynicism. Trees with golden branches and silver-diamond flowers. The land itself seemed repaired and decadent.
Reality transformed into a fairy tale that held more meaning than the illusion of daylight pivoting in the dusk.
Headdresses of golden eagles, patterns graffitied on the walls of museums. It’s difficult to calculate the consequence of shed blood, but every horror requires redemption in the ambivalent dreams of elders, sparking through the eyes of the next generation.
As for me, lulled, my viewpoint has altered: colors are bathed in translucent hues. My skin has grown one-piece metal, like a fish. I walk half in dreams. So here I am, with holes in my heart, wearing feminine accoutrements as my armor.
Red lipstick. Another kind of war paint.
So tell me which one is fairest of face?
Faces interest me now that I have one.
Girl transforms into woman, and a mask is required for that ritual.
Sometimes it’s a case of spherical eyeliner, narrowing the eye shape to resemble a wolf in an attempt to connect to animal origins.
Feathers are woven into the hairline, melting upon the edges of the forehead, under pretext of a costume party or some other celebratory evening. When a mystical, feathered girl exits a taxi, the Ravens hover around the bearer of their talisman, like winged shadows, and new myths are born.
The fairy-tale castle is an ornate illusion; the Park Avenue penthouse contains the same stone walls as any other prison. Kill me for a crown; the weight of gold and emeralds presses against the edges of my brain like a migraine headache. Dollhouse, doll-girls; my friends and I could never sleep after sitting properly in the dollhouse all day, dreaming like princesses, experimental eye makeup streaking as we suppressed our preteen heartaches.
Nowadays, people like to talk about nothing and dream of the things that used to be true. Where is the magic?
Dreams. Nightmares. Where is the in-between?
My nightmares are vivid paroxysms of blood and death. I don’t know how to draw the line between night vision and reality. Sometimes, I look in the mirror and see the eyes of a wolf, and fire, fire, everywhere, as the city disappears. But a castle I recall from the lands of the in-between stands firm against the skyscrapers.
Fragmented. Redemptive. Modern Native, mixed blood.
Let’s not forget the men who took white women so that their children would be free. For all the mothers who gave their offspring new names and whispered, “Hush, everything will be okay now. Those without soul, who don’t notice details, have tried to steal my ceremonial necklace and sell the beads. They have tried to tear my drum skin.
But the strength of my ancestors flows ever on. The undercurrents of moon and water flow in my timeline, and Raven speaks tricks through my mouth.
My Mother Never Wore Black…
It has always belonged to me, the colour of enshrouded secrets.
I will never tell my mother about my men. The texture of dark skin. Contrast.
A room full of mirrors. She used to call me in during her hours of bathing,
white lady, white paper porcelain, and whisper conspiratorially, “Tell me about any cute boys you might like…” And me, blushing – mortified in the steam of weekend heat, stumbling over denials of romantic longing and keeping my secrets buried in a heart shaped locket.
My body was not yet developed, and I tried not to look but I knew the shape of my mother’s legs, the delicate hands, the pale roundness of breast. And how I came from that body, but would I inherit that body? Such terror between mother & daughter. And would I be pretty once I got contact lenses, and would I ever be allowed to wear make-up & little black dresses? My mother never wore black.
She wore shades of cream, like a pillar standing bright in the midst of my father’s anger & her children’s morbidity. She wanted her clothing to melt into her skin, vanilla ice cream, cool and sweet. She had no love for my father.
I was born from contrast & chaos. Black is the shade that belongs to me.
Poison Control, Summer 2003
6 a.m. he calls me – I am in a dead sleep, or sleeping like the dead & he’s on my doorstep with no keys. He’s slurring. It’s hard to get him inside; he hasn’t left my apartment in 2 years so now he lives here. Has he been drugged? He’s crying & I am worried someone stabbed him in the spinal cord. He says he’s just drunk, though he is vomiting blood and making me nervous. He said he had a dream a few hours before that he died: “Love me or I’ll die.” But I hate him in this moment. He keeps saying he will die if I continue to be emotionally cold, why am I such a goddamn ice queen? Then he says he’s wasted his 32 year old life. This is when I call poison control. They say to wake him up every half hour. I am terrified to go back to sleep, but I am sick with a head cold and night shifts. I don’t know if it’s the alcohol talking or a metaphor for how he really feels about me, this wasteland. It’s now 7 a.m. I can’t believe he’s so careless. I notice he’s knocked over my latest painting – it’s on the floor in the kitchen. Maybe it fell from the telepathic force of his self-absorption. He looks up at me in a stupor, and says that he’s just finally understood my art, and it really does mean something.
I am burning up in Hell’s Kitchen,
replete with singed hair, fire trucks
scream bloody blue murder…
I am thinking of a man again.
I don’t do well in solitary confinement
& acts of violence leave me bored these days.
I am wearing fitted leather driving gloves which
wrap so nicely around a certain shape of throat,
and no fingerprints. I am marked.
4:11 on a Sunday as I attempt to be glib.
I have an envelope with instructions in my briefcase.
He called me on the phone late last night.
His voice was the texture of Napoleon brandy.
He used to say that making love to me was celestial.
He didn’t see the killer – for that I tried to hate him.
My skin is slick with sweat, and now I know
how Joan of Arc felt, with rapturous thoughts
of God & redemption
& ignited desire.
– Andrea Grant
Rings I Have Worn
There’s a ring of your skin
in the bathtub, rinsed-away love.
I know the particles that belong to you, gather
them for my burgeoning collection.
In the porcelain I wash soapy leg-ropes,
the places where other men have put their mouths.
Irrelevant where I am touched,
you have marked me
caustic Comet scrub-burn words.
Unmistakable, one of your hairs
stray in my bed
but it is time to launder
and here too particles
will be erased,
but never this headache of wanting you.
I was born in September’s
dusky rage, on a night where
fierce rain cast red velvet shadows
onto my mother’s ravaged body.
Death visited, she said,
but she fought for her child
against the lightning blend
of impassioned colour,
the end of summer.
She claims that the storm made me restless,
carved something wild into my eyes
that will never be calmed,
that I am one who will never be satisfied.
She said this many years later,
at Spring Equinox,
while I ached and turned my face away,
pretended not to listen.
STARING (Crazy on You)
TRACK #2 on the “Want Some Scratch?” Spoken Word CD by Andrea Grant featuring vocals by GREEN TaRA
I traveled to Egypt & the goddess Isis kissed my forehead. After that, people started staring at me like they knew how much I hated it, their blank faces not registering WHY.I began to lose my mind…
They stared at me in the coffee shop with the blue awning.They watched me select produce at the market.They stared on the sidewalk streets, at the Laundromat during the rinse cycle, in the bank line-up, at the hair salon, while stopped at a red light. At the record store, as I walked, shopped, talked, waited. Like they had never seen a woman WAIT before!
I cut my hair off to dissuade them, they only stared harder.I grew my hair to form a thick curtain, like Cousin It.They peered through the strands.I walked in stilts to be above staring range, but they only looked up while driving and caused so many accidents I felt guilty. I painted dark circles under my eyes to make myself intimidating, but it only made them feel like they could talk to me. I checked myself into a zoo, just to see if the obviousness of it would make them stop.It got worse.I was the beautiful freak in a cage. Americans came over the border to catch a look. People planned their family vacations around it, the kids, the in-laws, the grandparents, the crazy aunts.
Capitalizing, Mattel created ‘Barbie in a cage’ just for me.Children started to bring the doll to school for show and tell, dressing her up and creating scenarios. The Dream House, the Camper Van, the pink Mustang.Everything went CRAZY.
I started walking backwards. I dreamed about pyramids, the eye of Ra. I looked straight at the sun without going blind & grew a second layer on my cornea. When I came back to earth, the spell had changed. I could see past the skin and into the heart, reading the minds of the onlookers. I developed compassion. I couldn’t stop staring at them…
The Ginger Complex
Ginger, gliding coyly across the sand. Ginger. Tangy gingerroot engulfed in sweet honey. Warm hair, perfumed camel skin, mules that slip off like Cinderella’s glass slipper. Swaying, sashaying, a vixen startling wide-eyed youths. Emulation, Barbie lives and breathes, slinking into livelihood.
She reads men like dreams, men in awe of her mystical narcissism, dreaming of combing her caramel hair, tasting its candy-like grip.
Ginger looks over at Mary-Ann, the archrival. Rosy, robust, apple-pie cooling in the jungle. Mary-Ann is talking about her small-town roots, a freshly scrubbed piece of America. Girl-next-door, gingham simplicity, juvenile amazement at daring movements. She is the representation of safety locked in place with a wooden spoon, like Betty Crocker’s mother in her prime.
Ginger smiles wistfully as her roommate chatters trivially, in a language that separates country from city. Mary-Ann speaks with a halting innocence that draws the Professor into their hut, closer, like a hunter, a handsome bird catcher.
Ginger searches him. He blushes as his eyes are drawn to her cat-like face, to her desire ripened like coconuts on a tree. He thinks she does not see him shiver, that she is deaf to the heat in his voice as he tell Mary-Ann to hurry up.
But Ginger knows his fear, as she sighs heavily into the mirror, questions wet like morning dew and crumpled evening gowns, the eternal conflict. The turn of her profile brings jealousy and admiration, her face breeds lust, frightening her victims as they drown, basking in the glory of her caramel comfort.
The Water Dream
I was three years old when I fell into the Englishman River. The gray-green effervescence that belied the pull of the depths—and death—before me rapidly enveloped me. So blurry were the currents that wrapped around me, trying to lull me into eternal sleep, that I could hardly make out the serpentine shape approaching me. It curved in and out of focus, waking me to the danger I was facing. I was drawn to the way it danced in the shadows beside me, all shimmering gold and purple scales, and yet I was tethered to the rest of my life above me. As I started to kick to the surface, a light struck my eyes, and I lost my bearings. I recoiled and reached up again, narrowly avoiding razor-sharp teeth biting at my struggling toes. Strong hands finally met mine, lifting me from my river grave and away from the colossal creature. It was then that I saw its cold eyes staring back at me, the depths of which terrified me. I screamed, and everything went black. I lived, but my consciousness was forever altered.
As children, my sister and I took swimming lessons at Four Poles Beach, where several cold rivers meet the Pacific Ocean near Vancouver Island. Whenever the teacher tried to get me to hold my breath and swim underwater, I panicked. When I was able to submerge my head, I would hear a rush of sound like a car speeding down a freeway. My ears would start to ache, and then there would be silence. It was a lonely feeling, and I feared it like death. I began avoiding submerging my face in any kind of water and when I learned how to swim on my back, I would do it only with my ears raised above the surface.
I was drawn to the water but still avoided it, even when I was older and would join friends at some of the more popular cliffs in the area, like Little Qualicum Falls, Englishman River Falls, or Triple Falls. They would meet there to jump from the highest points, over waterfalls and into the rivers below. I would close my eyes as they dove, their limbs as controlled as a dancer’s, because I didn’t want to see it if they died.
I often joined them near the edge, though well out of danger, and thought, what if I slipped? It could happen in a millisecond, as it had happened to other kids who had ignored the warning signs to not walk past a certain point on the trails where the rocks were slippery. I would picture myself falling, ungracefully, spinning down into the freezing water, then gasp as if I were breathing it in and drowning all over again.
As I got older, my relationship to water grew even more intense. I began to actually sense it beyond the many rivers, many lakes, and ocean that are part of Vancouver Island. By the scent in the air, I knew precisely when it was going to rain and whether it would fall in a light mist or torrential downpour. Likewise, I could predict if we were going to have a dry summer with perilous forest fires. If I concentrated, I could even influence the patterns of water. I could encourage a slightly overcast sky to deepen with thick clouds and suddenly burst open with rain, or I could adjust the pattern of the rain from delicate to heavy to streaming sideways. As I practiced these powers, I discovered that making a certain hand motion would burn off the marine haze around the sun so its brightness would dominate the sky, even when the forecast predicted otherwise.
On Vancouver Island, Qualicum Beach is the main attraction. It’s one of the best anywhere, and the only place where I feel content. Nothing exciting seems to happen here; the days appear to be set on repeat. But this is an illusion because so much happens under the surface. It certainly feels like a place of magic, where lessons are learned through metaphor.
Ever since I was a little kid in the playground acting out Disney-princess scenes with my friends, I looked for the story in everything. Every culture has the same mythological ideas, and gods and goddesses, only with different names. There isn’t much difference between the Greek god Ares and the Cowichan Khenipsen Stoneheads. The First Nation’s counterpart to Helen of Troy or Aphrodite is always the Chief’s beautiful, graceful daughter, whom men from opposing tribes fight over in an attempt to win her heart.
In the “Odyssey,” Odysseus struggles with storms, comes across incredibly seductive nymphs, and finds himself constantly trapped between impossible choices. The ocean is an elemental opponent as perilous as any other villain. It was certainly mine.
I tried to make sense of why I was different from other kids. I attributed some of my anxieties to worrying about the future. I was a creative individual and could never see becoming a doctor or lawyer.
Most people in town probably thought my life was great on the surface. I lived in a four-bedroom house with a pool in a new subdivision not far from Four Poles Beach. My family had money, so I had some financial stability if I decided to become a writer, which I was leaning toward. I was popular at school and got good grades. But I still felt hollow, like a tree that no one realizes is dead until a windstorm blows it down.
When I talked to my mother about my feelings, she would say that I read too many heavy books and that they made me too analytical. It was probably true. Nothing was ever a simple equation in my head.
In an attempt to figure out what was going on with me, I looked into shamanism and some of the Coast Salish traditions that my grandfather, the only son in a family of daughters, passed down to me. To be initiated into shamanism, a person has to suffer in order to receive the mysterious and powerful gifts that come from the Great Spirit. At the bottom of the abyss, when you’re shivering and vulnerable and facing whatever terrifies you the most, comes a sort of transformation that’s almost like being reborn.
Had something similar happened to me when I had drowned? Had the sea creature that slithered toward me and haunted me all these years been an aspect of the Great Spirit? Had I died and been reborn?
It was when I was ten that I first learned of Uktena. A speaker had visited us at school and was teaching us about First Nations legends. He described Uktena as a water monster, with a body as thick as a tree trunk that was coated with glittering, icy-purple scales. Uktena’s head had huge horns, and an enormous blazing white diamond, called the Ulun’suti, rested atop its crest.
If any person were to capture that diamond, they would have everything they desired—success in hunting, finding love, or rainmaking. The diamond’s greatest gift would be prophecy; the owner would be able to see the future. The East Coast Cherokee warrior Aganunitsi was the only one said to have possessed the jewel. Most drowned trying to win it.
Had the creature I had seen been Uktena? Or was it only a legend? Besides, if the serpent was only supposed to live in rivers, why had I sensed it in the ocean? On rainy days, I even imagined I had caught glimpses of its shadow lurking in shallow pools.
Some people think that Vancouver Island occupies a unique geographic location, where powerful magnetic currents pass underneath and meet, making the land itself an easy access point into the Otherworld. Had Uktena reached me from the Otherworld?
After learning about Uktena, I couldn’t shake the vision I had at the age of three from my thoughts. The water serpent’s face, with those terrible bicuspids, began appearing in my dreams. I would feel its sinuous body wrapping around my neck, trying to strangle me like a necktie. I would wake up, paralyzed with the question, what if it wins one day? Somehow, we were intrinsically connected.
One night, my dream became more vivid than it had ever been, with hyperreal colors and abstract shapes that flashed forth like an animated Picasso painting. I was running in a sparkly tunnel. It felt like a massive head rush, but my body weighed almost nothing. Thunder clattered in the distance, and I knew that something inside me had caused the storm.
Then I heard a seductive voice chanting my name over and over, “Noah, come and find me.” I walked through a fire burning straight through my path and, unscathed, through the smoke. It began to pour. The rain was so heavy that it was falling sideways. My legs were like weights, but they led me to daylight, to the voice. But when I finally reached the voice, I was all alone.
The dream then sped up, and I realized I was standing on a cliff, toes hanging over the edge. The sky got dark again, and it began to pour. I moved forward and plummeted into the water, a menacing laugh echoing shrilly in my ears.
When I woke up, the scent of saltwater was all around me. My room was cold, and I was shivering with fear. I couldn’t fall back to sleep afterward. For the rest of the day, I felt vertigo, like I was falling over and over again.
One day I revealed to my father that I was having bad dreams that were filling me with terror. We talked about what it means to face the demons within. He said it was only through a series of sweats at a sweat lodge that he was able to heal the violent rage he had struggled with for most of his life. He invited me to join him for his next session.
In the midst of my first sweat lodge experience, something dark inside of me was revealed. The shaman conducting the ceremony told me it was like a shadow spirit was attached to me, trying to steal my vibrancy. He took out a rattle and shook it hard, insisting that the sound would make the shadow leave temporarily, whereupon healing magic could be initiated. I had the sense of my soul leaving my physical body, hovering slightly above and bearing witness to what was occurring.
The room started to fill with Natives, young and old. Drumming began. As the pounding grew more rhythmic, the sweat lodge became hotter. I realized my ancestors had come to join the ceremony.
“Noah, you have summoned us,” a great-grandfather said. “You may ask the usual three questions.”
I couldn’t speak, but my thoughts could be heard.
“Why is it that Uktena focuses on me?” I asked. “Why do I even see him?”
“He is mirroring your actions,” my ancestor replied. “If you seek him out, he will seek you out. Break the pattern.”
I wanted to ask how that would be possible, but instead I said, “What am I supposed to do with my life? I need to know my true purpose.”
“That’s more than three questions,” the ancestor murmured. “You are a born storyteller. You need to channel all of your thoughts and feelings into a narrative that you track by writing down. That’s the only way you will regain control and find peace.”
I was also told that I had power over the elements, but that it needed to be harnessed. “Beware of playing games with the weather, or it will play unexpected games with you,” another ancestor cautioned.
Then, they vanished, leaving me to decipher the riddles and visual clues, such as rain, a notebook, and a fountain pen. My soul was suddenly back in my body, and the room was cooling down. The shaman’s ceremonial assistant handed me a glass of ice water, which I drank thirstily.
“How do you feel?” my father asked when I got home.
“Strange,” was all I could say. But in my heart, I knew I’d received a gift to help define my purpose in the physical world.
The night after my sweat, I had another dream. I was driving down the California coast on a quest for a treasure that had been lost at sea. I didn’t know what the treasure was, only that it contained remarkable jewels and was of great spiritual value. There was a young man traveling with me. There was something supernatural about him that suggested he was a conjurer of magic. When I looked into his eyes, they were an otherworldly, silvery-olive green.
We drove along the raw, sun-baked beaches, searching for the treasure. At each new inlet, we’d stop. We’d get out of the car and immerse ourselves in the waves. I was astounded to find that he had the ability to turn into a killer whale at will and swim for hours, transforming back into a human the instant the water became shallow. He was a guardian spirit, sent by the ancestors to assist me on my journey.
There was no sign of Uktena. I had no fear of the water. Around my neck, hanging on a silver chain was a huge glittering diamond, reflecting the sunlight. It was the Ulun’suti. I had conquered my ferocious monster and was the master of both worlds, ocean and land.
I am drinking again.
Vanilla vodka, so the cops won’t come after me
when I sit in my car on white afternoons
& think of how it’s as though the sun has been extinguished
because I am a windowpane
you’ve been looking through
instead of at
which must mean I’m made of glass,
hard & breakable in the same instant.