Welcome lies, calling me home. Forgotten 'til now; this path, these shadows, this moonlight.
A figure bent over the fire, staring into it, extending a hand to run fingers through the flames. Remembering, after so long forgotten.
“Mother.” Straightening, sighing. My bastard brothers and sisters whispering in the shadows.
“Don't call me that. Not ever.” The fire in her hand, illuminating eyes in the night.
“What else should I call you?; It's what you are.” Never before, never so brave.
She laughs, glancing over her shoulder, the same fires in her eyes, hair rising and falling as though caught up in ocean tides.
A smile, shadows playing over her face, reducing it to a crone's sagging skin mask; leathery, densely lined, eyes little more than sunken pits.
Turning away, to the flower of blue and emerald flame in her clawed hand. Whispering to it; the same songs that once kindled me. Or similar.
Returning the bloom to the fire before it can swell, before what she has dreamed can be born. “I never should have been. You know that better than most.”
The first; her original mistake, her beloved abomination.
“No, you shouldn't.” Defiance; no longer a child. No longer afraid, though I know what she can do; that she'll turn me inside out with a thought, if the inclination takes her.
“You've grown. You've loved. I have...grandchildren, now?”
Three; Edmund, Samuel, Lucius. All brilliant, all dreamers.
“Do they...walk here?” Unable to keep the tremor from my voice, the thought of it almost too terrible to bear.
A smile, my siblings stirring in their nests of shadow. “Sometimes. I can't stop them, you know that.”
No, she can't, and neither can I. “But you can watch. You can make sure they wake again.”
The thing she consigned to the fire writhing, swelling; a mewl emerging from the flames. Reaching into them, caressing its barely substantial form. Hisses and chitters of welcome from the dark.
“I can. Assuming that's what they want. You've always had a...conflated sense of what I can do here. The wood is not mine, child; it isn't anyone's.”
Old fury, old resentments; the same that drove me from here the first time, when I was barely a youth. A bitter wind stirring the leaves and grass beneath my feet. My brothers and sisters recoiling, hissing in sudden hostility. Eyes alight, teeth glinting.
“I won't let them come to harm, you understand me?”
The woman seeming to flicker like the flames; a reflection on water. Many faces, many facets: the crone, the fertility idol, the storm goddess.
All of them known; all Mother to me, in their own fashions. The thing in the fire reaching for her with boneless, gelid limbs, demanding her embrace.
“I thought you said you should never have been..?” Others approaching, shedding the shadows cloaking them, exposing themselves in the firelight. Reflections of what I might have been, given other Fathers: children of rain and frost and wind; of flame and fungus, of beasts and shadows. Children born of little more than her own idle dreams, nightmares that seeped out, polluting and transforming the wood, making it perilous for all that wander there.
Beasts, beauties; monsters and miracles. Creatures seemingly stitched together from the shadow they emerge from, others from wet sludge and mouldering leaves. A worm-thing, knotted and writhing on itself, a loping, black-pelted lycanthrope. Others less defined; elemental, ephemeral; aspects of the wood itself. A figure of smoke and embers, shifting form and sex as it stalks to the fireside. Another of rain and mist, causing the soil to fruit where it walks. Many-limbed, swollen bulks descending on silken threads from the boughs above, worm and beetle-like kin erupting from the soil.
The beat of wings, gusts of breeze through the boughs, greater specimens descending; coiled, silver-scaled, many-headed, spewing blue flame at the sight of me.
The unwanted, never born bastards of a reluctant Goddess; my brothers and sisters, the spawn and subjects of nightmares since humanity first began to dream.
Fathers as various as their forms; known, in some instances, lost in most: demons and angels; men and beasts. Elementals, born of the winds or rains; from sludge, blood and honey. Children of the ocean and deep woods, of the sky and darkness beneath the earth. Fungal and floral broods, the children of storms and mist and frost. Things born of engines; children of metal and plastic and clockwork; of strange, alien systems that fruit from their bodies like fungus, that infest them in the manner of parasites.
None quite so immaculately conceived as me, at least, if the myths she sang over my cot are true; none quite so close to her in nature or potential.
Surrounded by them, the woods wretched with them. Flocks and tribes and nurseries; dreaming nations that mostly know nothing of the waking worlds beyond.
Save what she allows them; what myths and fables she spins. Why I ran; why I became the prodigal child; her beloved self-abortion.
In love with waking, ever since her first tales of it; stories that she allowed no other, that she forbade me from telling, save in her presence: tales of concrete and disappointment, of time and love lost, of life lamented.
Aching to be there, always, even knowing how much she laments it; how earnestly she wishes for humanity to join her in dreams.
“No, I should never have been Mother. To you or any. But I am; what I was made, for better or worse. And you, my lost and lonely sweetheart, what are you, after all these years?”
Beyond years, beyond lifetimes; beyond all the idiot feuds and grudges; the fratricides she forced me to commit, that she hated me for. The hurts we unthikingly inflicted on one another: Idiot wars, lost and wasted and abandoned lives; my own loves taken in spite; drawn into the depths, lost to dreaming...children likewise.
And still I can't hate her; still I can't deny the ache that has drawn me here, beyond any purported concern for my wandering children.
Her child, still, after so long; the hurts and betrayals, the cruelties and abandonments. Still.
“I'm...” The answer choking in my throat, on the eager eyes in the surrounding darkness. What is she asking? What does she mean?
So many things; a husband, a Father; a cook, a gardener. A lover of ciders and horses, a walker, a wanderer; in love with silence, isolation...
“I'm nothing.” Laughter, hisses; growls of contempt. Wordless pleas to be let loose; to tear me apart for my blasphemous joke. She holds them back without a word, with barely a thought. Smiling with many mouths, her many eyes ablaze.
What swells in the fire no longer mewling and formless, its hand taking hers, a contradictory chorus greeting it as it she draws it into being.
Stumbling, trailing tatters of azure flame. Knowing before the fires die, before its form settles...what she has done, why she allowed me back into her presence.
“Vile bitch.” Smiling still, her masks and aspects in rare, rare accord. The newborn taking its first breath, raising its perfect face to the canopy, to its siblings clustered and calling there.
“You swore...you swore there'd never be another...” Our last meeting, an uneasy truce, drawn amongst the blood and moans of our almost murdered young.
“I did. Just as I swore to serve and adore my husbands forever. Just as I swore to be as my Maker demanded the moment It dreamed me. Haven't you learned anything out there, child?”
I thought I had. I thought perhaps that, after everything, we'd finally come to some semblance of understanding; that there might be peace...
Straining, their eyes burning cold, their hate and hunger and despair seething in the surrounding air, barely held back from flaying me on the spot.
Held back by her; no blood spilled on these grounds without her desire. Certainly not mine.
The newborn blinking, the fire in its hair, around its fingers, fading; the lambent lines tracing beneath its translucent skin likewise. Embers on its first breaths. Its eyes; pits of luminous fluid, tears streaming up over its brow to burst at its hairline. Such knowing in them, such passion.
“Not my choice, this time, boy; I would not have broken the peace between us. Not for all the world.” An idiot for believing, perhaps, but I do.
“Then what is this?” The new born smiling, closing its eyes, the soil and ash at its feet fruiting with strange weeds.
Barely able to look at it, shying away as if pained by its light. Never before; never so fragile or afraid.
Its light flickering over her, the fires of its birth burning low. Our siblings flocking to it, swarming around its ankles, descending from the boughs above to twine fingers and talons in its hair.
The newborn indulgent; gifting each and every one with its caresses, with coos and songs of welcome. Our Mother watching, not radiant with maternal pride, but withered, as though exhausted from the act of birth.
“This...this is everything you could never be, child; this is one that will never abandon or make war on us... one who will lead us from dreaming.”
My laughter breaking through the celebrations, disrupting song and hymn; the wood itself seeming to waver; an image painted on wind-swept curtains.
All eyes on me again, blazing at my blasphemy, cold light prickling my skin like frost. Its eyes the only source of warmth; its smile one of incestuous welcome.
“Is that what you think? That you're going to walk in the daylight? That this...thing will somehow show you the way?”
Two smiles; one indulgent, affectionate, the other cold, cruel. Newborn brother and ancient Mother; love and spite searing me with their contradiction. The others crawling close, breaking their communion with the newborn to silence me, to slit my blaspheming throat, to put out my lying eyes.
Held back, even now; wickering and whimpering at not being able to lay tooth or talon on me. “Why did you come, child? Why did you answer?”
Laughing, turning my eyes to the dark sky between the boughs. Stars flickering there; strange moons swelling. My sisters, or so she used to tell me; those that never took breath, dreaming or waking. Dreaming there, now; in the heavens beyond, lost in their own dances, their bizarre games. Knowing them as she never could; having heard their songs and stories; having walked in their strange gardens.
Not merely miscarried but aborted, by our Mother's own hand, for fear that they might, in time, swell to challenge or supplant her; new Mothers of the Dreaming, new Godesses in the Wild Wood.
Swollen; fat and heavy with their own broods. Never before; never having known Motherhood, until this moment.
Amber and pink and emerald, their contradictory lights shearing down, upon me, upon my brothers and sisters. Our Mother blanching beneath it, trembling as though strained by its weight.
The smile fading from my newborn brother's exquisite lips, light fading from its eyes. No more welcomes, no more invitations; from this moment, only murder; a myth that would weave itself throughout the expanse of humanity's dreaming.
“What...have you done?” The shadows swathing her blazed away beneath her daughter's moonlight, her aspect no longer shifting, but stilled in a state of bent and withered decrepitude.
Luxuriating in the same radiance, its touch not unambiguously kind, but invigorating as storm rain in desert heat. Old urges, old uncertainty, my dreaming state no longer contained, no longer an echo of waking...
Laughing, laughing as they scream; the howling of storms, the roars of cosmic maelstroms, calling my unborn nieces and nephews from their slumber, down into the state their Mothers were denied. Answering, as my skin splits and sloughs away, as my play of humanity goes to filth and dregs. Another condition; one she has never seen, that none of them know:
Swelling, swelling beyond the confines of the canopy, trees sighing as they bend and break, as they wither at my touch.
A state never occupied before; not in her presence, cultivated in conspiracy with the split and spilling bodies above; with the moons that howl agonsied laughter, even as their young rain down.
Vast, coiled and heaving; smoke and molten stone seeping from beneath my scales. Blood that blazes, a furnace in my mind and belly: An old monstrosity; one that once stalked my nightmares, that pursued me through the woods, before I found her, before I realised myself, and learned that the nightmare had my face, my voice.
No longer denying my siblings, the umbilici holding them back abruptly severed, allowing them to fall on me from every quarter: Talons raking, fangs piercing, stumps of blade-like bone attempting to spill me out amongst the leaves and wildflowers. Not one biting deep enough to draw blood, those that so much as score me eliciting arterial springs of burning matter; lashed away into the woods before they can inflict deeper hurts.
My sister's children falling amongst them, riding the light they bleed; monstrosities of another state and order, made alien to this dream by their exile:
Silver-skinned, translucent; things of mist and starlight, amorphous anatomies, shifting and swelling as they plummet; congeries of bubbling organs, their purpose ineffable, bursting to give birth to the next configuration. Flocks of the drifting boneless; bag-like bodies swollen with flickering star-fragments, tendrils leaving behind trails of colour that paint the night sky. Many-winged entities whose pyramidal bodies swell and contract, every rhythmic pulse issuing tinted smoke and swarms of shimmering parasites. Shoals of darting, luminous, piscine forms, swimming as though in ocean tides, their irridescence leaving after-images against the darkness.
Smiling up at them, into the depths of my aborted sister's anger and bitterness; a rain of newborns falling, the first already upon the Dreaming's soils.
A blow, the first to shudder me, cracking my great head aside, bringing burning blood to my lip. Lowering my gaze, so many siblings retreating, withering beneath its light, finding my Mother and her new child, the woman glaring up at me, stars reflected in the sunken sockets of her eyes, a staff trembling in her hand, held up in defiance where it previously helped her to stand.
As for my new sibling, it weeps on its knees, the blue fire of its birth pouring from its eyes, causing the sludge below to fruit with strange growth.
“If my children must walk here, Mother, then you and yours cannot.” My sisters singing, my nieces and nephews celebrating as they tumble and swarm throughout the Dreaming.
The newborn raising its face, features molten with grief, our siblings wailing all around, agonised by my attention; in conflict with their Heaven-sent cousins.
A wordless expression; an elegy that lances through screams and storms. Invisible swords puncturing my hide, burning with cold poison.
Many falling, squirming in the dirt and filth at the sound, raking at themselves in guilt, in horror, in disgust at what they are.
An agony beyond any that waking can contrive; the cold fire inside, burning my mind with unwanted memory, with stories of days that never were or could be: Stories of what we might have made, together; my siblings, Mother and I: my own children, told the stories of their ancestry and allowed to walk unfettered, to know themselves...
“Never. They'll never know. Even if I have to smother them in their beds...” No idle threat; an oath, to her, to myself. To this nightmare she birthed me to.
The bitch knowing, my bastard sibling the same; seeing through the scales and shadow in which I cloaked myself, into the cold furnace of my soul. Seeing my capability for infanticide; my history of it, in old, abandoned lives; in sloughed off states and skins.
Long forgotten children, wandering too deep, drawing too close to her and my kin. In danger of knowing themselves too intimately, of becoming bridges between dream and waking.
What she wants; what she's always wanted: not to love us, to know us, but to walk on our backs, for us to be her path from this Dreaming prison, into waking day.
That ambition dying around her, now; infested, twisted, transformed by her murdered daughter's young, what they'd make in its place an entirely other state; a new nightmare for humanity to walk and forget in the sun.
“I should have strangled you before you were born; burst your heart when I felt its first beat...” Slurred and spit-flecked regrets, more vicious than knives; a hail of black darts and needles pattering against me. Some finding the wounds already carved, burrowing inside; parasitic agony, entire acres of the Dreaming dashed to ash and splinters in my writhing.
My breath oblivion; a gout of black, smouldering flame, bursting from me, engulfing them both, obliterating the surrounding wood. My pain, my hate; my fear and contempt; everything she'd fostered in me, poison fomented throughout every life I'd lived and lost...hers, now, as it was always meant to be.
The eruption emptying me, withering the creature I wove, leaving it shrivelled and insubstantial, peeling away in the alien winds.
On my knees in the ash and sludge, gasping for breath. The black inferno raging; a mass of swirling shadow, of liquid darkness; of blood and fire and bile.
Around me, the Dreaming fraying, acres breaking apart, collapsing; drifting away, becoming ash. My sister's bastards swarming amongst the ruin and emptiness, already weaving their own Edens; the price for my Sister's aid.
Columns of light shearing down from above; amber, silver, emerald. My eyes drawn up, to the moons themselves, that break apart, imploding, dissolving, forms emerging from their destruction, descending in the light, carried by tides of their adlring young:
My Sisters. The murdered and lost, who've hated me as much as they hated her, in the past; with whom I've shared wars just as bitter.
Setting foot in the Dreaming for the first time since their exile, their expulsion from the womb; a trespass that undoes and transforms it; grass and wildflowers withering, soil erupting with new and alien species.
Ghosts; shades only of what they might have been; of the Powers that our Mother feared: nameless, never baptised in blood and rain, like the rest of us, accruing their own states and aspects through the dreams they touch and infest:
Emerald first: a slender, willowy form, her painted, tattooed skin bared, rippling with bestial muscle, as though there's wolf somewhere in her ancestry. Her eyes burning wild; pale fires alight in her skull, rising amongst the horns crowning her head.
Amber next; a thing of dusk and Autumn; a fulsome harvest Mother, wrapped around in elaborate skirts of purple and scarlet that shift around her like leaves in the breeze.
Finally, Silver; a knife in the dark, her angular frame swathed in robes woven from the emptiness between stars, her coldness a wound all but bled dry; a surgeon's scalpel, a corpse's kiss, howls and the flutter of raven's wings accompanying her.
My sisters, my enemies, my allies; our histories long, our wars almost too many and too bitter to recall. Nothing I can do, now, if they choose to betray me; too weak, too wounded.
Struggling to rise, the monster I was all but gone, now; whisps and tatters clinging to my bleeding limbs.
Their eyes not for me; attentions that might have been enough to murder me here, drive me from the Dreaming, were they to fall on me in concert.
No; every ounce of their fascination for the inferno I vomited, for the forms still flickering and writhing at its heart:
A scream of utter fury, of infanticidal rage, a hurricane wind bursting from within, carrying the black flames out across the surrounding desolation.
My Sisters wavering, shrouded by their veils of light and darkness, I and their children carried from our feet, cast towards the edge of what little Dreaming remains. Beyond?; Delirium, a miasma of light and shape and motion; the potential of all Dreaming, from which our Mother and we all are born.
Tearing my eyes away from it, resisting the siren summons to swim there; to not merely dream the dragon, but become it, and every monster, every nightmare; every state or form or possibility ever imagined.
My Sisters already in flight, screaming hollow war cries as they sweep and dance around what remains of our fire-born brother; a molten, almost fleshless thing, belching and bleeding its own blue flame:
Perfection desecrated, transforming before my eyes; limbs stretching, multiple maws bursting from the ruins of its face, skeletals wings erupting from its back. Our Mother's work, pouring her poisoned poetry into it, her dying dreams; making a monster of her perfect son, just as she made ghosts of her daughters, an exile of me. The beast lashing about itself with fire-wreathed talons, snapping at its murdered siblings with mirror-shard teeth.
One of our Sisters screaming; the fire kindling in her Autumnal skirts, flaring as she flails, frost-laden winds howling around her. Her children bearing her away, swathing her burning form, suffocating the flames with their own bodies.
The beast howling in frustration, its cries those of starving, abandoned children, of wild animals caught in snares and hunter's traps.
My emerald sister dancing around it, every motion leaving after-images drawn in sunlight on the air, a spear of bone twirling in her hands, jabbing out to pierce our brother in the throat, breast and back.
Howls of agony as her sunlight invades its wounds, burning, igniting its insides; as her children sweep in to aid her.
Braver than the rest, more vicious; flocks of burning birds, wolves woven from sunlight. Things that seem born from the dying Wild Woods themselves; dryad-like, willowy and ephemeral like their Mother or immense, hulking, battering the newborn with sweeps of branch-like limbs.
The thing still burning, still shifting; our Mother still singing her lullabies to it; every poisoned dream, every venomous nightmare she's ever hosted, made manifest in its flesh. No longer beautiful; a ragged, pulsing, seeping thing; spider or centipede like by turns, every state burning with the element of its birth. My remaining sisters wounding it over and over, suffering its reprisals in their turn.
Bitch. The rising growl of a dragon, the roar of a pyre growing fat on martyred flesh. Stalking to her through the ruin, through the ash and filth.
The woman glancing my way, scenting my intent; her focus on the newborn, on remaking it beneath my sister's violence, sustaining it long after it should have frayed to nothing.
A blow that snaps her head aside, that severs the umbilicus. A keening wail, the newborn collapsing where it stands, its rags and tatters twitching and lashing around it, my Sisters and their young descending on it.
A howl of grief, my Mother raking at her dessicated features, sloughing the flesh away beneath ragged nails. A spillage of tainted light from within; ichor like luminous pus.
No. Taking her, holding her fast with hands and thought, snaring her as she once snared me; around the throat, stopping her breath.
Hate. An explosion of contempt that bursts her hide; black blisters and tumors forming across her every inch, exploding to unleash spatters of tainted white, curls of hissing, snarling smoke. Nothing that can touch me; not any more. Insulated against her, over long years of separation. The poison having only one target; the same that inspired its expression.
Too late; her attempts to reign herself in, to hold the poison back: abortive intent, dreams of infanticide, flying from her, as the newborn raises its wounded, bestial face, as its remaining eye weeps and blazes.
A choir of sorrow, from child and Mother both; from the siblings that brought it to this state. Then it comes apart, the remaining flesh flayed from its bones by the murder intended for me, but that could find no purchase.
The death of perfection, of the one who might have shown her the way to waking. Mother sagging in my arms, all volition draining from her. A mire of filth and blue embers all that's left of her final dream.
“Mine will never walk here, and they will never know you.” The last abandonment, the creature in my arms shrivelling, becoming weightless, black and white dust pouring between my fingers, rags flittering away in the air.
The new dream barely born, already fading; collapsing where I stand, sunlight and birdsong invading my skull, sisters smiling, singing their thanks to me, promises of what the next night will bring.
A cold dawn, feet on the landing carpet. Muffled voices, clanking pipes. Rain at the window. The scent of blood and burning still in my nostrils, Mother's ashes still on my fingers.
Rising, pale light filtering through the window, the barks and bleats of waking humanity, so few remembering, so few realising the ancient dreams that almost made them slaves.
George Lea is an entity that seems to simultaneously exist and not exist at various points and states in time and reality, mostly where there are vast quantities of cake to be had. He has a lot of books. And a cat named Rufus. What she makes of all this is anyone's guess.