Now. Is. The. Time. I tether this thought to belief and shackle it to hope, neither of which makes it real. It certainly doesn’t feel real. The mood in this place is nonexistent. There isn’t even a speck of enthusiasm amongst us. Worse, I don’t sense anticipation or readiness from the mother-in-waiting, and nothing, nothing at all, from the child-yet-to-be. I had prepared to battle and drag harmony into our crowd. Instead of an onslaught - there is a drought.
Still, we assembled here for a birth. Several female members of my clan ring Maala, the expectant mother, supposedly for support as much as protection. They stand, solid as oak trees, maybe sentinels, hell gargoyles. Steadfast and immovable, the loudest sound amongst them is the soft slip of silk wraps against the cavern floor. Dim cave walls flicker with torchlight, and I strain to see Maala, who should be squatting in the birthing position, her mother, and her mate’s mother to brace her and aid her. Instead, she’s lying on her side, every inch of her soaked in sweat, rendering her gauzy gown sheer. With each whimper, every hard clench of her muscles, a shape distorts the flesh of her belly. I swallow past a lump of confusion and angle for a better view. No one assists Maala, the group just gawks at her in apathy. This is not what I expected.
“Play.” I can’t name the thin rasp of a voice, but I obey. It is my job after all. To play, to hold the circle so that Maala’s son can be born and claim his shape, take his place amongst us.
Pause. Inhale. Exhale. Focus. I push peacefulness out from my center and allow it to fall as a gentle rain over the gathering. Time to ignore the niggling thoughts that trouble me. Time to show and prove. Simple as stilling my mind and lifting the bow to my violin strings, I know I can do this. Except that what I expect doesn’t follow what I know. I am awkward with this bow as if it were too big or my arms too short. Despite this not making sense, I refuse to let frustration and alarm take hold. Instead, I struggle against the wrongness that eddies and swirls around me. Music is my strength, my power, and I fixate on playing to bring the room into a productive congruence. Bow meets strings; the first note is sharp, and it extends for two beats past my intent, a screeching harbinger of foulness. Not that anyone except me even notices. I try to make my fingers position themselves where they belong, and the chanting begins, “Child of majesty… child of light.” A common blessing, but why does the delivery bring a funeral dirge to mind?
In useless fluster, I attempt to soften their tone, but each sound that issues from this, this thing in my hands is more discordant than the last. This isn’t my Fiddle. Hints of panic flutter within this sad excuse for music, but I can’t surrender. No time for subtlety, I thrust joy and anticipation into the crowd. Forget a gentle rain, try a pounding storm. But, my manipulations do not reach their targets, instead they disappear in a murkiness that covers us.
Ok, I am lost. First circle or no, I am too strong an Empath to fail! I stop fighting my thoughts and this infernal instrument, but the chanting continues. And Maala groans, punctuating the sourness of the cave while she lies there, limbs akimbo and head flopping, a disenchanted rag doll.
I stagger when the sounds escaping Maala become a feral wailing. Wet ripping and screams follow. No, this cannot be happening! I stumble backward and move towards the path out, and away. I don’t want to see what is materializing behind me… but something is reaching for me, hauling me back… “Nnoooo!”
Dramatic isn’t it? Well, one of the more significant parts of my history begins here. The circumstances of my birth and early childhood are immaterial. The tale of my survival starts with this nightmare. While I’m often asked to tell my story; it is exhausting to share it and look back on the triumphs and failures, so I’m narrating it for the recorders one final time.
This is no fairytale, nothing I did, nor what I endured, will read like one. Sometimes I’ll just regurgitate the pertinent facts because that is the safest way for me to recall painful experiences. And sometimes, sometimes I will be so deep in the memory of an event I will say it as if I’m reliving it. This is how I remember my life, and while I remember everything, I can’t say my knowledge of how it panned out won’t color how I depict it here.
So, I returned to conscious thought in my Nana’s arms; she was shushing me and holding me as if I were a small child. While I appreciated the comfort, receiving it from her was uncommon. “Hush, hush child. Come on, wake for your Nana now.” I gasped and shook while the afterimages of my nightmare left me. Her scent brought me into the present. Nana always perfumed herself with cocoa butter and sandalwood. I recognized her familiar, pleasant fragrance, and it centered me. After a while, Nana released me, “Let’s get you something to drink and talk.” I nodded agreement, struggling out of tangled sheets. She led the trail from my bedroom to the warmth and light of the kitchen.
Once in the kitchen, Nana headed to the fridge for the milk. I plodded to the cabinet for the mugs, cocoa powder, sugar, and vanilla - instant just wasn’t our style. We’d done this enough to have a routine, minus the nightmare. When she turned around, Nana jiggled a bottle of Southern Comfort and winked. “I think you could use a nip of this tonight.” I chuckled at the inside joke and then retreated to the window seat, staring out the bay windows into the black pitch.
With the fear gone, the shame and concern had seeped in, and I had to ask. “Nana, did I wake- well, everyone?”
She cleared her throat, “Baby, it wasn’t too bad… I felt your… agitation, but you weren’t pushing, more like a nudge. I was awake; I doubt you disturbed anyone.”
At this, I shuddered and pressed my palms against my temples as if I could contain my internal mess that way. I was a very gifted Empath; though immature. That means I had the ability to read the emotional currents of others and reshape them to create responses of my own choosing. But, unconscious and in the grip of a nightmare, I could be unpleasant to dangerous. Feelings require gentle handling, not rough prodding. We sat for several minutes in silence. Nana finished preparing the cocoa, and I wallowed. It wasn’t until the rich aroma drifted towards me that I went where I hesitated to go.
Nana cut me off, “Don’t you worry about your Mama, girl. This kind of thing is normal before your first circle. A rite of passage. I told your Mama that before you prepared for Maala.” Nana’s tone was dry, and her eyes shone when she placed the steaming mug of bourbon-laced hot cocoa in front of me. “Sip this.”
I took a deep drink and willed the warmth to suffuse my body and settle my mind. Such an idle longing, bourbon can’t get me drunk or make a difficult conversation easier. Still, I looked into the contents of the mug and searched for the right words, though they refused to appear. Nothing but foam. Ugh, I couldn’t stop myself from sighing, “Nana, I am ready for this, right?” My question emerged as a whine. Nana didn’t respond to questioning or whining well, as a general rule, but I was past caring and had more than a dash of uncertainty. When she didn’t respond, I glanced up in time to see her eyes become flinty and black.
Nana’s concern faded from her gaze as she dragged out the bench on the far side of the wood plank table. Her rigid tone droned on as she sat with a sense of heaviness, “Chymaera, you were never a little girl, don’t play at being one now. You are ready because you must be. It is time to assume your proper position and take on adult responsibilities.” Nana paused, “There aren’t many Empaths, and I’ve never known one as strong as you or with your musical abilities. As a Holder of the Circle, a future elder–you are essential to the cycle of life for your people. You know this.” She looked at me, expecting agreement, though I’d dropped my eyes and refused to meet hers.
I got it. I was supposed to feel powerful and proud right? Lucky me to have the rare and enviable “gift” right? Well, I didn’t. My abilities were millstones, looped around my neck and dragging me down. Gifts are a double-edged sword. You know the saying, “to whom much is given, much is required”? Well, Nana was rather black and white about things and viewed any ability I had as a service I should rush to perform. What kind of bullshit life sentence to get for committing no crime! “I know that I have no choices. You expect too much from me. I’m just a kid!”
Now, that last bit was a ludicrous statement, but I was desperate. Just clinging to the lie they’d raised me with. See, spending most of my life trying to pass for a human, made me aware of how my Thumbra responsibilities straitjacketed me. I resented the hell out of them. The anger in Nana rose, and I considered countering it, but I wasn’t that audacious, not yet. So I did nothing and waited for her next move. I heard her rise, heard the scraping of the bench as it pushed back against the stone tile floor, still, I didn’t glance her way.
I saw her perfectly. She wanted to intimidate me, but I couldn’t bear to make it easy for her.
Nana made performance art of transitioning forms. She altered each feature, one at a time, for impact. Especially if she was angry. Her eyes changed first. It was as if her pupils swallowed her eyes as they transformed into black spheres. The fingers followed. Her pale nails became ebony claws, long, and scalpel sharp. She wanted to draw your eye as she pulled the African Blackwood hair sticks from her brittle gray bun. With a languid toss of her head, her hair fell across her back. It shimmered and darkened into the deep brown of rich coffee beans and flowed to swish her hips. The skin she wore, an aged human shroud, both saggy and dusky, tightened and brightened to a high bronze veined in tiny rivers of chocolate. As she moved, the skin revealed itself to be an armor of fitted octagonal scales. Her tail, its length matching her newly stretched frame, snaked up behind her as if peering over her shoulder. She reached across the thick, rough-hewn table and muscles became taut. Those claws I couldn’t ignore as they click-clacked the surface on either side of me. I swallowed and met her gaze. One feature was still recognizable as Nana, her eyes. Her stare down was the same. She was always striking in what we called our Emergence shell. Formidable even. But I hated her using it at that moment, given what it represented.
“Good, now I have your attention.” Nana appeared to smile, but her split snake tongue distracted me from whatever false reassuring tone she was trying to convey. I always wondered why she didn’t hiss with her tongue like that. “Chymaera, do I look like the grandmas of your friends? Do I look like I play games and bake cookies?”
“Really, that’s how you want to…”
Nana raised her hand, palm out in the universal sign for “shut up”. “Chymaera, it is difficult for every creature to adjust, leave childhood and become an adult, but it is necessary.” With feline grace, Nana used one claw to grasp the underside of my chin and traced my jawline with a nail from the other, “You are coming into your time. Period. You don’t get to forestall maturity, and you don’t get to have some kind of human teenage tantrum over it.”
“Chymaera, I’m done talking for now. Blessed child, you are blind! Your abilities guarantee you an honor and respect that I would have done anything to achieve at your age.” Nana huffed, straightened and stepped back from the table. In a second or two the creature faded into just Nana, an average, and elderly Afro-Caribbean woman from the “islands”. “We must maintain a careful balance, it is unfortunate we must blend in with humans because we are not. We cannot afford to imitate their childish antics.” Nana turned and walked towards the dark hallway, “Just drink your cocoa and go to bed, do a cleansing meditation before you try to sleep. It will take a few hours to reach the ceremonial cave, and the ritual will begin right after dusk. Be ready to go by 3 pm. Goodnight.”
It wasn’t the first time she’d dismissed me or any inconvenient issues I had. I sipped my cocoa; it was just lukewarm with a mild taste of bourbon. Oh, how I wished it was straight alcohol! I wished I could get drunk and not care, so I drained the contents and continued to stare out the window.
Adults were such a joke sometimes. Nana had never been in my shoes. She didn’t talk about her past much, but I knew she’d never had responsibilities beyond herself until she was centuries past her Emergence. She loved putting me in my place while wearing the only form that marked her as an adult and me, not one. Somehow, I was both a child and not a child - depending on what Nana wanted from me.
It almost hurt to see my reflection. I looked like a pretty… girl. Yes, I was cute. Mama loved beautiful things, and she’d designed a daughter as a perfect approximation of her and Papa’s current features. Strangers questioned me, “What are you?” and “Where are you from?” The question was always superficial referring to the mix of my traits. An aquiline nose set in deep caramel skin, and almond-shaped eyes of smoky gray haloed by coarse and kinky curly corkscrew hair. They saw my leggy frame and thought “exotic” not knowing just how right they were. Again, I wished I was only what my reflection showed, a girl and nothing more.