In total darkness, it is not the flames that lead me to her. It is the smell. It is the acrid stench of burning flesh, tinged with the sweetness of cedar, that wakes me completely. Rushing to dress, I pull on boots with no stockings and am out the door before my cloak is around my shoulders. She isn’t far off. I know where they have left her.
I reach the clearing just off the main road, beyond the tavern and the furthest field. They would not want the stench to bother them, but somehow I can smell it. Or perhaps I only felt it, a sudden piercing at my heart, the ripping away of my being that comes from losing someone so beloved. There is no water near here. They planned it this way.
By the time I see the flames, she is not moving. No longer struggling against the bindings, no longer screaming for help. She is already gone. Whether it is the smoke or the burning I know not, only that I must save what little is left of her. With my cloak I try to douse the flames, stomping on them, singeing my skirts, risking my own immolation. I pull the knife from my belt and cut free her wrists. Her skin breaks away as she lands in my arms, and I pull us from the fire. Collapsing to her, my howls fill the night air, and women and wolves across the countryside mourn the loss of our sister.
In the past, I was burned alive.
In the past, I lost loved ones to the Fires.
This is my recurring dream. My nightmare. This is my memory, the sweat-soaked startle in the middle of a November night, the moment I reach for the warm skin of my lover (whether she is next to me or not). I’ve carried this with me since childhood, since the first time I watched a bonfire dance in the snow, since the first candle I cried into when asking for answers. When I started reading the tarot, the dream intensified. No longer could I simply see the moments, but smell them. Taste them. Feel them. The woman in this memory is always different. Some times, she is my mother, my grandmother. Sometimes she is a sister or a cousin. Sometimes she is my lover. Sometimes she is a stranger, a neighbor, a drifter, a gypsy. But always, always it ends the same. Always do I howl at the moon, suddenly crisp and silver in the night, and always do the wolves howl with me.
Last night, the dream returned, after months of quiet.
I’ve been reading Women Who Run With the Wolves again. I haven’t picked it up since it was the textbook for one of my undergraduate women’s studies courses, the one that also used Goddesses in Every Woman and The Goddess Tarot. I couldn’t stand it any longer, watching several of my beautiful art journaling sisters read it via Instagram. It was the howl I could not resist, the connection to wolves and seals and magickal things that made me realize how I missed the dream. Not the fact of the dream, not the burning or the dying, but the memory of the dream: the wise woman way we lived in those times. The ways we can live as wise women in these times.
I’ve come to admit to myself that I have forgone the wisdom I know. These past few years have created a distance between the wise woman and my being now. Once, I could name every tree in the forest, walk along and find the herbs that could heal you and the herbs that could kill. I knew how to shear a sheep, to go from fleece to fine knitted garment. I could cook any meal from scraps and stones. And I could divine you tale so true and so tall you’d never want to sleep for fear you might not hear the ending. This wisdom, it was once all I had. And I’ve come to realize that these days, I haven’t got much of nothing without it.
It comes back slowly. The simple act of cooking oatmeal. The divination in choosing the day’s necklace. The mailing of a book that leaped off the shelf to a good friend. Soon you are searching for the hawk feather an elder gave you, the bear root of your mother’s friend, lusting after the first tarot deck to speak to you since childhood.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes:
Over-intellectualization can obscure the patterns of the instinctual nature of women.
In this way, she has outed me. I have let so much of the Mystery, the Wildness, the Magick that is a part of my herstory and my heart fall to the unknown. I have almost deliberately ignored it here and as part of my business. But this is the problem: my work is mystical, and magickal, and wild. This work is hot and messy and tearful and joyous and dancing naked around a fire and brewing potions of words and images and letting all the Wildness be set free. I got so hooked into the “normal” way of being that I was afraid to let the soul-work shine through. And it nearly killed me.
Last night, the dream returned. Only this time, for the first time, I was both the woman in the cloak who ran to put out the flames and the woman on fire. I had to rescue myself. And I was almost too late.
This burning away, it has given me a new sight. A new skin. I cannot bear the thought of howling for my own death, and yet perhaps I have a million times over. The wolves, they circle. They never attack. I am ready to be claimed by their wildness and succumb to my own truth. I am the Wild Woman, the Wise Woman, the Witch, the Warrioress.