Hunting The Source
by Jamie Annear
I swear, everything important I've ever learned about life has come from the woods. It comforts, celebrates, inspires, teaches. I walk along mud-packed paths sometimes scraped raw by sneakers and hiking boots, sometimes blanketed with oak leaves and pine needles. The path rises and falls, twisting, twisting, but invariably I end up seated comfortably by a body of water, staring endlessly at the way water moves over itself.
Always I am hunting. Restlessly I trail over land, searching out the water, feeling the cool air that it brings rushing over my cheeks. I hunt, not for a new home, but for a place that brings me back home, to myself, in myself, a place to write where words have meaning, ideas have power, and life becomes so layered, it's all I can do to keep myself from jumping in and burrowing between the layers, like a mole or a prairie dog, or the way I burrow underneath the covers of my bed at seven in the morning, when the last thing I want to do is work. Never forget, you are a layer too.
Keep in mind, this hunting must be done alone. For if I bring a loved one with me as a companion, it's true, I may have a great time and wonderful conversation, but there will be markers I will certainly miss--a bent tree branch, footprints in the mud, a new path to take. If no one is there to block it, the sun will shine hot on me, revealing the way my shadow has been tracking me. It will rise, grow larger, taking the shape of Artemis, blonde, short-haired, short-tuniced goddess who, with a merry laugh breaks free and runs off on the hunt again, uninhibited, unconstrained, unafraid of the secrets and solitude that wild places--her home--hold.
In a small, one bedroom apartment in the Illinois suburbs, a young divorced mother works slavishly to provide for her four-year old daughter. She gives her small daughter the bedroom and sleeps out on the couch alone. Her daughter is completely oblivious to her mother's sacrifices; she only knows how she wakes up in the night crying, just wanting her daddy to chase her around the bedroom with his undershirt pulled up to his eyes, roaring like a monster and scaring her half to death. In many ways, the mother hardens her heart and does what she needs to in order to make ends meet.
She takes a forty-hour-a-week secretarial job, the kind of job she will have the rest of her life; years later the girl will be interrupted from her reading of Judith McNaught's Whitney, My Love to the sound of her mother sobbing uncontrollably on the phone to the girl's grandpa--she has carpal tunnel, and the pain in her wrists is so bad, she too just wants her daddy, again.
On Saturday mornings she does hair at the beauty shop in Mundelein; her efforts to make women look like 1982 goddesses give her varicose veins in her legs and a bad back. Almost twenty years later she still can't stop moving for fear that time will catch up with her. She is as much a slave to her house and her age as the way she always complains that her second husband is a slave to their 9-1/2 acres of land.
"I'm moving to Arizona, I'm moving to the city, I need to go someplace warmer, this house is a mess, my ass is huge, I'm so fat, I'm trying this new Beverly Hills diet where I only eat kiwi and pineapple. Casey Wall, get back here!!" (This she screams to her youngest daughter, an eight-year old hellion.) Try as she might, she can't stop moving, not until her body collapses on her. Witnessing her exhaustion is exhausting.
Her first husband tells their daughter what she used to be like: ". . . a free spirit. I walked into her house in Mundelein once and found your mom and Aunt Linda in the kitchen, having a water fight. They were throwing buckets of water at each other . . . the linoleum was a mess. And I remember a canoe trip we went on together. When we got out of the car to unload the canoes off the roof, I looked down and saw her squatting on the bumper of the car taking a piss, looking up at me and laughing crazily."
The girl is fascinated by this stranger she is hearing about for the first time, but her mother never tells her own stories. She misses that.
The girl does hear from old high school friends and by looking at her yearbooks how she was the only girl from the Mundelein High School Class of '74 who had cut her blonde hair short like a boy's and styled close to her head, like she was perennially walking, drenched, out of a lake. When asked why she never let her hair grow in the straight, long, parted-down-the-middle fashion of the time, the way her older sister Cheryl wore her hair until her fortieth birthday, her vehement response was always, "I never wanted to be the same as anyone else!"
The girl loves how her mother dared to be different, and wants to hear more. But it isn't until the girl is away at college that she finally breaks open to her daughter in a telephone conversation the girl will never forget.
"I left your father because I couldn't take care of two children--you and him--by myself anymore. He would come home from the bars at three in the morning on Saturdays and then complain about having to watch his daughter while I went to work at the beauty shop. He always had to have his toys and live above his means--you know he still lives that way. And you only became a priority when he realized I was getting remarried, was moving north, and that he was about to lose you. Do you even realize that when we left him, he never even called you to say 'hi' during the week, that there were times where the only thing he had to feed you were oyster crackers, that sometimes he took you over to his parents' house while he slept in the living room? They always bailed him out. My parents could never do that for me. Dad was a blue-collar Illinois Bell worker, and he treated all four of us girls the same--what one got, everyone got. I bought all my own clothes in high school to make it easier on Dad. I was raised to be independent, and that's how I want my children to be raised."
The girl sits on the other end of the line, stunned into silence, an unusual feat; conversations with her mother usually involve yelling, throwing things at each other down the hallway, and, once, a slap. Looking back later, she realizes with pride that it was her mother, with the glistening, abnormally short, blonde hair, strange style, and crazy laugh, who was the first woman to teach her the hunt. If she can ever relax enough to open up to her again, the girl will simply say, "Mother, Artemis, tell me your stories."
I can't even fathom the idea of having a child at this point in my life. Yet, at my age, my mother had just given birth and was raising one (or two, as she put it). But for months now, another kind of life has been growing in me, conceived by moonlight and a conversation. A thought has come upon me, from this it grows and develops as much as it can inside me. Only a few people are allowed to see my rapidly rounding belly--the rest of the time I keep it concealed from the world by distracting, billowing wrappings of other words, ideas, thoughts, news.
But finally I must relinquish this precious weight. I am, after all, merely the vehicle for this life. Waddling ungainly through narrow aisles of atmospherically lit coffeehouses, I find the "right spot" to do this.
Sitting down at a table with a blank sheet spread in front of me, I barely manage a contraction over a two-hour period. Annoyed, impatient, uncomfortable, and about to scream, "bring me the drugs!" like Kirstie Alley in "Look Who's Talking," I realize that this surprisingly sterile environment is not going to work for me. I sigh, ease myself up, and continue on my way, driving down roads with haunting names like Lonely Lane, seeing the freshly tilled fields waiting to be seeded, the bright green John Deere combine off in the distance. Arriving at home, I realize that that is exactly what I must do--return to the source.
And so here I am yet again by these life-giving waters. Intent now on my labors, I don't see the shadow moving through the trees. Artemis again, Goddess of the Hunt and Wild Places, this Virgin Goddess is also patron goddess of both unmarried girls and mothers in childbirth. She presides over those who let go and surrender to that one glorious moment when their own life-giving waters break and flow out--expression, creativity, birth and death--all flow from that one source: womb, woods, water.
As a species, we have forgotten so much of what forms the base of life. Things humans once knew, lived by. We must have known long before Columbus that the world was another circle, like the cycle of re-birth visible in the seasons, phases of the moon, reincarnation in life and death. Once, sexuality was held sacred because you only had to look around you and know that without the power of fertility, life would not exist. Plain and simple.
This ultimate life source, the original fertile being was worshiped as a Great Mother Goddess, going by names like Gaia, Isis, Inanna-Ishtar. And yet, ironically, this mother of all things was also seen as virgin goddess, virgin not for a lack of sexual experience as the term signifies today, but for her ability to carry within herself the power of life--and to not need any man's help to reproduce. According to many ancient mythologies, such as the Greek creation mythology of Gaia who created her lover Ouranos from herself, original life came from inside a woman. Of course, over time such self-sufficiency wasn't necessary and more . . . conventional ways of reproduction could be used. And, as is the case in any situation where love and sex come into play, feuds erupted between the gods--NC-17 stories of jealousy, adultery, incest, rape, and metamorphosis, the often cruel and harsh punishments doled out by the gods when humans dared interfere with their calling, especially the callings of the virgin goddesses Athena and Artemis, and the places that called them.
In a small Midwestern town, the girl sits alone day after day in empty classrooms reading. She picks her nose and bites her nails, pulls at her hair and keeps her eyes lowered. She hates her thick, poofy, heavily hair-sprayed bangs that a Mexican boy her classmates call Kiwi (brown on the outside, green on the inside) likes to push on and watch spring back like a rubber band. He laughs like a tidal wave continually washing on itself.
This at least, his stupid delight in her ugly hair, makes her laugh. She hates how everyone always walks in together in clusters and hates even more how she can feel their eyes on her and their laughing whispers that echo in her ears when they catch her finger up her nose and her nose in a book--it shocks and humiliates her that anyone would actually rest their gaze on her.
At lunch she sits with Holly, a girl she's known for years. She doesn't sit with her because she's a truly great friend. She sits with Holly because there's no one better to sit with. The girl once ran for the kitchen knives out of desperation after her "friend" had been taunting her mercilessly for what seemed like hours. Being old for their class, Holly takes her on car rides. One ride turned into a "date" with a guy--three hours of foreplay with him in the front seat while the girl lay in the backseat pretending to be asleep (wishing and praying she could fall asleep) and not knowing if she should say something or not. The guy offers to "throw Sleeping Beauty back there in the trunk so they can really get down to business" and begins to reach behind him to tie her shoelaces together. At the first hint of a finger touching her shoe, her foot shoots out like an arrow straight through his hand, metamorphosing it black and blue, a mirror of what she imagines his heart and soul to be. He's been transformed, but only on the most superficial level, because he thought he had the right to touch what did not belong or was permitted to him. Wounded, he's changed only on the outside. He curses, says the fucking bitch is awake, and the girl smiles and slides farther down into herself, beginning a metamorphosis of her own as Holly assures him that it's just a reflex; she does that all the time in her sleep.
What do the metamorphosed dream? Half-remembered thoughts of being human with an animal soul, or of animalistic, revenge, sweat-stained, blood-encased, tear-encrusted dreams that cocoon their now human soul? I wonder, do they re-enact that one fatal moment when that bow and arrow--the wrath of the gods--was turned on them? Io, turned into a cow by Zeus so his wife Hera wouldn't find him cheating with her? For weeks she cried by the river, scratching Io in the dirt with her hoof when her father walked by so he'd know who she was. Stripped of a voice and covered in hide, their vulnerable humanity is never more revealed.
Or Medusa, raped in Athena's temple and punished by the virgin goddess for "violating" her sacred space. Her path in life sidled up to this one inevitable moment where her eyes could turn men to stone and snakes grew out of her head for hair, a symbol of the knowledge that she now holds inside and releases with a gaze. Beyond good or evil, right or wrong, the strict standards she has broken, she is utterly alone, a monster. Maybe she wishes for that one female friend she never had and couldn't find, especially not in a goddess without the sympathy to console a broken and battered woman, saying, "if he ever touches you again, I'll ground him into the dirt I spit on!" Whole in herself, independent, carefree, who can the virgin goddess celebrate her freedom with?
When it is too cold to go out in the woods I sit at home alone and light a candle to remind me of the places and people that sparked a fire deep inside me when I was that girl who is now a stranger yet remembered with painful clarity. Staring into that flame I see faces of the lost, removed, or shadowed friends from the past who with their open arms welcomed me in, then with their closed minds let me go on my own into the woods of the world.
But of all these faces there is one that stands closest to me. For the proximity of our friendship and the ways in which she is a stone cast in the water, forcing me to respond to the ever-widening circle that sometimes spreads between us.
"Come on! I'm ready to kick some ass!" It's one in the morning and she's wired up on karate moves and techno music from Mortal Kombat. In particular she loves the deep bass of the lead singer of Type O Negative who gives her shudders when he breathes deep and says "I see your face in every flame/There are no answers/ and only myself to blame." Jessi has been passed out in the recliner--she was that way ever since the opening credits started. Not Missy. She jumps up from our spot on the floor, where we'd been lying on a jumbo floor pillow and starts shadow boxing with the room and doing high kicks to the ceiling fan circling lazily around overhead.
She dodges and punches the air, circles around the room, adding in her own sound effects, then makes her way towards the comatose Jessi, leans down by her ear and whispers in her deep, guttural "devil voice" that can send both of us into hysterics, "Fuhsie. Wake up." I just lay on the floor and shake my head in amazement, wondering where she gets all this energy from and what in the world prompted her to become friends with me?
One week she wears five different B.U.M. Equipment shirts--one for each day of the week, she tells me. She'll walk into school our junior year wearing black opaque tights underneath jean shorts, a tight bodysuit, a jean vest over that, and a little jean conductor hat plopped on top of her tight, curly blonde head. Our entire lunch table just stared slack-jawed, until Holly broke the silence by asking what the hell that girl was on.
She's a pickpocket who swipes Jeff's, Jessi's, or Jonathan's pens during lunch, then puts on an innocent face, saying "What?", trying not to crack a smile as they demand their property back, knowing full well she has it. Once she'll sprint away from the lunchroom and throw Jeff's pen into the girl's bathroom, collapsing against the wall in laughter as he darts in to retrieve it and returns beet-red and ready to strangle her.
All the guys love to hang over at her house--they watch "Mystery Science Theatre 3000" at three in the morning as she lounges around in tight, red, see-through lace shirts, wondering why the guys stare at her so much. (Later, she'll realize in shocked surprise that she wasn't wearing a bra that night. That would explain it . . .)
She knows how to flirt and messes around with the boy I've liked ever since freshman year.
She's exactly how I want but don't know how to be.
Three and a half years, a broken heart, and a college education later, she walks up to me with baggy eyes half-covered by her now straight, short, blonde hair that she despises, a shuffling gait, and a sense of loss that has never quite eluded her since we graduated high school and she abandoned her girlhood dreams of perfect love on the bleachers next to our caps and gowns. We set up our dorm room, freshman year, as a shrine to the memories we shared in high school. Her desk is peppered with pictures of the boy who broke her in two, the way a pastor breaks the sacrificial bread for communion, broke her for a false sense of God and family loyalty, saying he wanted someone like her but not her. And my desk is practically a security blanket--layered with similar pictures of the same friends, as I cling to high school memories, many experienced vicariously through her.
If it's true that everything happens for a reason, then why did her shrine have to be torn down by the love and devotion of the first boy outside of high school who noticed her, who told her as he repeatedly pulled his coat around her that sure, she could wear those flimsy, see through shirts to the grocery store if she wanted to look like a whore, who tells me it's just part of our friendship for him to be mean to me, and who doesn't want her to go to graduate school in any city where he might not be able to find a job in his field of Information Systems. She speaks her mind on all this, but usually ends up more depressed.
Prompted by his mother, he briefly entertains thoughts of joining the seminary to become a minister. I rushed over to see her that night as she lay in her room at home crying and listening to "Is Your Love Strong Enough?" from the Legends soundtrack on repeat. When the incident had passed, we could joke about it: "I could just see you as a minister's wife, Missy. Sitting in the front row dressed in red with a herd of children and either staring off into space or giving lusty looks to your husband."
"Yeah, can you imagine it?" she picks up. "My kids would start crying in the middle of the sermon, and I'd start screaming at the top of my lungs, 'SHUT THE HELL UP! Goddammit, I need a cigarette.'" Conversations like this can get us going for hours, until I hear her significant other in the living room apologizing for us to a friend of his with air of superiority. "You'll have to excuse them. They get like this sometimes."
The rest of the time, to get what she wants from him she says to him, "But deeaarrrhhh," and blinks her eyes at him with a fake coquettishness that's only half-faked. They love to play games, and he's the ultimate embodiment of masculine competition.
"Do you want to go out with me tonight?" I often ask.
"Sure, let me ask Jim and make sure it's OK." Later she'll return to me and say, "Yeah, he's excited to go." I just smile and go on pretending, because she's not even aware of what that does to me.
But occasionally there's days like these, the day she approaches me with that tired look, drooping hair, and hesitant step, saying, "God, I'm so tired of everything. You know what I want to do? I want to move to New York and be a bum, just sit on the sidewalk and sell poetry for a dollar."
I laugh and say, "Yeah, that would be pretty awesome," but in my mind I think, "Big Talker. You'll marry him and have a nice life in the suburbs with dinner/movie dates, meet his friends for weekly lunches while wondering what happened to all of your friends. You seem like you're happy, but who's this person with poetry for a dollar, telling me she can relate to U2's 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For?' Maybe the ghost of a girl who wore red lace shirts and threw anal-retentive boys' pens in the girls bathroom. Maybe Artemis, maybe Aphrodite, goddess of love. Maybe both."
I moon-gazed one night recently, walking back from night class. It was a crescent moon; I found it more stunning than the usually praised full moon. It looked like everything at once--a woman's smile, mysterious and full, the curve of her hip, a baby's cradle, a harvesting sickle, a scythe that maybe the Amazons used in battle. We are all warrior women, battling something--culture, society, family, friends, work. Ourselves. I see that moon, think of Missy and her poetry, and can't help but wonder: What's a stronger dream for a woman--the wish for love or the wish for a life of her own, set on no one's terms but her own?
Even these woods have marriages. Only here will mirrors suddenly give way to ripples of moving water. This is where I want to live--at the junction between calm and motion, to be both falling off and scrambling up. This is still Artemis's terrain, and yet the mirrors move along with her at a slower pace.
I once conjured Aphrodite, antithesis of Artemis, to be myself, rising up from the middle of a river fifteen miles from my house. It is not an isolated spot at all, but still, there is water shallow enough to walk in, and rocks large enough for the water to make music with. Here I stretched myself out flat on a large rock in the middle of the river and palmed the water's movement, now so close it flashed in silver arcs. I could have gone on watching forever, but moving just a touch deeper, my palms and fingers now sailing the water's surface, new paths spread out in liquid roads, a result of the union of hand and water. Natural art, unconscious, joined with human attentiveness, conscious. Resulting effect--creativity, expression. Artemis presiding over the marriage (any marriage), as she always did back in the time when she was still recognized and worshiped. Aphrodite inhabiting the marriage, the moment where I want to inhabit the rock, the water, the other person I'm with. More than that, I want to be that other element or person. And still, such madness can never be truly succumbed to. Even Aphrodite's virginity was ritually renewed each year in the spring. It gives me faith in myself, who often loves too well, Missy, who sometimes doesn't show her love to the right people--most especially herself and my mother and all the other mothers and daughters out there, faith that a woman can love and still be constantly reborn a virgin, hunting her woods for the things that bring her back home.
Bio: Jamie is a December 2000 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where she will receive her B.A. in English with a writing emphasis. She is Co-Editor and Web Designer of her campus's literary magazine The Muse. Awards she has received include the Superior Student Writing Award for her personal essay Home Fire and first place in the creative non-fiction category of the Jack Heide Award for her essay Painting the Dead. Both essays and other work can be found at her website.
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