Thursday, August 23, 2012

Enchanted Old Houses and a Bobcat Skull

After a long evening stroll about the neighborhoods, peering through fences and between trees at the bits of magic held everywhere in front yards and side alleys, footpaths, sidewalk gardens...

.... imagining candlelit windows thrown open to let the stars in at night, to touch the ancient books and soft secrets held inside....

... smiling with glee at this telephone pole, so completely covered in her skirts of ivy, marveling at how easy it is for wild things to take over our sidewalks and wired contraptions, when we let them....

.... smelling the heady brugmansia (or angel-trumpet) flowers, themselves a powerful form of magic if ingested, though quite dangerous as well, truly doorways into another realm...

.... and, good heavens, wandering through the rose garden  on Euclid street, full of longing and nostalgia for my childhood garden, filled by my mother with Abraham Darby roses, Icebergs, Cecil Bruners, the Prince, all so wild and thick I could play games in their caverns, hoist tiny basket-elevators up into their thorny branches....

.... after all this, peering into other people's sun-rooms, thinking of morning tea, I stopped by the house of an old, old friend, just around the corner from ours, and was stopped in my tracks as I came in by this creature, sitting on the window sill....

A bobcat skull. Every tooth sharp and pointed, for eating voles and brush rabbits, fawns, deer mice. The nose canal like a perfect heart. Her son had found it on the narrow trails that look out over the ocean, at Slide Ranch, in one of those moments, he said, where he just looked straight at it, suddenly, like it had been whispering to him. I remember going to the Slide Ranch summer camp as a little girl, milking a goat, making necklaces from wild fibers and shells, visiting the bone hill, where all the dead things were cleaned by the elements, their bones left white like this. It scared me, then.

Now, the bobcat skull astounded me with its beauty. A vessel that had carried the mysteries of a feline spirit for many, many moons across the misted chaparral of those Mt. Tamalpais hills. A strange and magical home for a small and perfect huntress.

It made me think of the Russian story of Vasilisa the Wise, in which she is sent by her evil stepmother to retrieve fire from the Baba Yaga, that crone of death and rebirth, that old woman who I imagine with all manner of small bones braided into her hair, riding her mortar and pestle through the sharp starred night, ambling in her house of bones with bird legs through the darkest pine forests. From this being, she has to win fire. It is a beautiful, beautiful story. One of my favorite versions is told by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, in her book Women Who Run with the Wolves.

At the very end, after passing all the tests the Baba Yaga has given her (scrubbing the house, cooking up a dinner, separating mildewed corn from good corn), Vasilisa is given a skull full of fire to take home.

"It was night and Vasalisa came through the forest with the skull on a stick, the fire blazing from ear, eye, nose, and mouth holes of the skull. Suddenly, she became frightened of its eerie light and thought to throw it away, but the skull spoke to her and urged her to calm herself and to continue toward the home of her stepmother and stepsisters.

As Vasalisa came nearer and nearer to her house, her stepmother and stepsisters looked out the window and saw a strange glow dancing through the woods. Closer and closer it came. They could not imagine what it could be. They had decided that Vasalisa's long absence meant that she was dead by now and her bones dragged away by animals and good riddance.

Vasalisa advanced closer and closer to home. And as the stepmother and stepsisters saw it was her, they ran to her, saying they had been without fire since she'd left, and no matter how hard they had tried to start one, it always went out. Vasalisa entered the house feeling triumphant, for she had survived her dangerous journey and brought fire back to her home. But the skull on the stick watched the stepsisters' and the stepmothers' every move and burnt into them, and by morning it had burnt the wicked trio to cinders." (From pages 79 and 80 of Women Who Run with the Wolves.)

Ivan Bilibin, "Vasilisa the Beautiful"
There is something deeply powerful in this image of the skull glowing with fire, leading the way out of a dark wood, wild and true in its light. I can imagine that little bobcat skull, held aloft in the darkest oak forest, casting a deep light through the shadows.

Lynx Rufus
And more importantly, to be able to hold that bone vessel, fanged and smooth, was to touch a little bit of this world, the world of the bobcat, soft-eared and knowing.

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