‘Hawthorne & Heather’ is a series on my life with my partner spirit Hawthorne, focused on how the spirits have impacted my life. While these posts are relevant to the Otherfaith in that my life involves the Four Gods and their spirits, they will be more focused on my own life with the spirits. This is not intended as an introduction to spirit work but an exploration of my own life with the spirits and adjusting to life afterward, as it were.
Hawthorne has a snake tattooed on his left forearm. It is a remnant, a memory, and he hides it away under lop-sided shirts or dozens of bracelets. He hides the rose the snake is lurching for.
Before I met him, I hated roses. They were overused, boring and typical symbols of love. Hawthorne adored them. He grew them in his apartment’s window-box, opening the glass pane to let the scent of them in. He was always bursting with rose imagery.
He never smelled like roses himself though. He smelled like cigarettes and alcohol, old alcohol. The scent drowned out anything natural about him. If there was anything natural about him in the first place.
But past the snakes and roses and booze, he was as much a spirit as any I had met. He was made of wind and stardust. It was easy to forget when roses were blooming around him, or when I was smothered in that cloying scent of old addiction. But he was as much a faery as any, with strange forms underneath.
His roses begin to wilt when we meet Althea Altair. She is a Younger Spirit in the Otherfaith and a child of the Laetha. She acts, for all purposes, as the Laetha’s right hand. When we meet her, in some bright café patio with wrought-iron chairs and flowery cushions, she is blonde haired and red-eyed. She wears white and red silks, and she holds her teacup delicately.
Althea is the first Laethic spirit I meet properly, and I do not notice the firmness with which she holds herself. I am too captivated by her beauty, cold and crisp and not at all the fire I expected.
“You’re the spirit from my vision!” I exclaim as Hawthorne and I sit across from her.
Althea purses her pink-white lips. It will take me a while to learn the restraint that defines Laethic devotion, and my education in the spirit world will be slow to take in our embodied one. I am too much fire and burning, too wild. I bring to bear so much humanity and assumptions that will take decades to tear down.
We meet with Althea to discuss my devotion to her father. She is the channel which all Laethic devotees much go through, the initiator of her father’s energies. And she is the epitome of devotion to the contradictory fire god, lacking emotional reaction and focused purely on her duties to the god. Or, at least, that is the impression she gives when I sit across from her.
Being open to the Laetha as a devotee, in the sense that I wish to be, longing for that intimacy with the god, that ecstatic connection, requires an energetic ceremony. Althea explains it to me, the expectations and rules. And with each word Hawthorne tenses more and more, and the closer we draw to my formal devotion to the Other People’s god of fire the more his flowers wilt away.
My journeys into the otherworld are perfumed with smoke I can’t get away from, with how often Hawthorne burns through his cigarettes. They begin to burn strangely, from delicate grey-white smoke that forms playful shapes into big globs of black smoke, like tar, oozing from the cigarette and Hawthorne’s mouth.
He tells me not to go through with the ceremony.
I learn, eventually, that Hawthorne’s purpose was to act as a challenge. The type of devotion I sought to the Laetha wasn’t easy, and by setting myself upon that path I had spun us both into a twisted up cycle of push and pull. It was not a conscious purpose, just as many of my actions driven by the spirits or in the spirit-world border the line between conscious consent and divine influence. We were caught in forces greater than ourselves.
Of course, Hawthorne being a force himself, he struggled against falling into that flow. It was as I prepared for that first true step of my devotion that I saw him as he was, not a companion or guide or sweet-talking spirit but a faery capable of controlling elements, bringing windstorms with his anger, his soft beauty replaced with an ethereal glow, able to confront Althea as she became more insistent upon my initiation to the Laetha.
Even with Hawthorne’s warnings and cries that I stay away from the god of fire, that I turn back before it was too late, I still went under Althea’s knife.
The Heart-Taking Ceremony
Hawthorne had a snake on his left arm. I had a phoenix on my right. It was one of those unshakeable symbols that had written itself on my energetic body so long ago I often forgot about it. But as I lay on the cold table, shirtless and exposed, Althea caught sight of it.
She was wearing a plain white gown, plain white buttons going up the middle, her plain white hair tied up, her stark red eyes watching me. She picked my arm up.
“A phoenix?” she questioned, and her voice was full of condescension. Her lips twisted, and then she was laughing, the first time I had ever heard her laugh. We were alone in the cold clinical room, and her laughter bounced off the walls ominously.
“I,” I gargled out, stunned by her show of emotion. “It’s just. It means something to me.”
“Those things usually do,” she said, setting my arm down. She was short, short like I was, but as I lay on the table she seemed to tower over me. Her fingers – and for all the clinical atmosphere, she wasn’t wearing latex gloves – brushed against my face. She was freezing. “I have to ask if you really want to do this.”
“Do I have a choice?” I laughed, nervous. The lights in the room were casting everything into shadow. It felt – stark.
Althea gazed down at me. “You always have a choice.”
This was as true in some ways as it was a lie in others. But as I lay there with a glittering spirit made of cold fire and sand, I nodded.
Althea picked up a dagger and jammed it into my chest.
When the Laetha and her aides ripped open my chest and tinkered around my ribs, there wasn’t pain. When Hawthorne ripped my stomach open, there wasn’t pain. But my chest had ached for weeks before Althea stabbed my chest open, and there are no words for the pain that she sent through me when she began taking my heart out.
I know I was crying. It was impossible not do. And I know Althea was speaking to me, soft soothing words that I never expected from her mouth. I know she took my heart, steaming in her hands, and placed it into a golden bowl, and I watched as it caught fire and burned to ash.
Althea did not sew my chest. She simply dragged her finger across the wound, and where once a huge hole was now a scar, dulled as if from years of fading. The spirit touched her own chest as I sat up, still sore from what had happened.
“I don’t have one,” she commented, eyes locked on my scar. “I was born without a heart.”
I didn’t know what to say. I was still reeling from loss, from absence, from not having the core part of me that had kept me running for so long. Instead there was nothing. My heart was not the only thing the Laetha had tugged out of me that day, but it was the heaviest. I had to lean on Althea to make it out of the room. Anything I could have said to her would have been cruel, so my silence was a blessing that would lead me to spending evenings in her living room, the cold of my new body against the cold of hers, until one day the sorrow of losing my heart turned into an awareness of all Althea was and would be.
When I was returning to reading about energy work, when I read about connecting to your heart, to the warmth that was supposed to be there, I reached inward. Since a child I had done energy work, taught by my mother and teachers and books, and I had always had a firm connection to my heart. There was nothing to grasp onto though. I was hollowed out.
Hawthorne was wearing stars in his hair when I saw him after the ceremony. He gathered me in his arms, feeling painfully warm, and squeezed me until I couldn’t breathe. Until I thought my scar would pop open and all the gunk of living would pour out.
I understood that the Heart-Taking would change my personality, would shift who I was. I expected a dampening of emotions. After all, Althea was remarkably restrained. But I realized that was all external. Inside, in private quarters, the followers of the Laetha were burning. I was burning. I felt like I was being eaten alive by flames, by my own emotions, by life. By the god I was supposedly serving.
I realized why Hawthorne didn’t want me to go through this.
In the otherworld there was a lot of puking-up of lava. In the embodied world there was a lot of emotional breakdowns and bad decision making.
All that was ‘me’ before burned away, as if a line had been drawn with my blood and ash.
Eventually, the Laetha fitted me with a new ‘heart’. Hearts for the Laethic devotees are steel, or wire, or gold, or coal. And we can’t look at our own, can’t pull them out and turn them around and find what is now part of our core, what thrums through our veins. We have to trust what the god gave us, just as we trusted her to rip out our heart but leave us alive.
Whatever heart she gave me, there’s still a hollowness. There’s still a lot of learning to do. Just because I’ve learned to watch my words enough that Althea no longer tosses water in my face doesn’t mean I’ve learned enough.
Thank you for reading. ‘of the Other People’ is a site dedicated to the Otherfaith, a modern polytheist religion. You can find more about us here and here. You can contact us here if you have any questions or would like to get involved.