We have been there. We have lived to tell the tale. Slipped sideways, parted the veil. We have walked between the worlds. You and I, we have made pilgrimage to the Hollow Hills, we have stood upon the heath and let the wild wind of the Otherworld take us where it would. We have found our winding way to the heart of the forest, and sat upon the moss-covered stone of the ancient, secret grove, and heard the whispering of the ancient voices, felt the thrum of life through the trees. We have traveled in the Dark, and followed the spiral path into the Underworld. We have summoned the Dead to our feast, and communed with gods and spirits. And we have returned.
The hero in the stories sets out from the ordinary world, faces dangers and obstacles, meets friends and foes, and finds the treasure in the Inner Sanctum, bears it back through a throng of foes. She lives to tell the tale; she returns to the ordinary world. Changed, changed utterly. Things can never be the same again. She has seen the Fair Folk trooping under the moon, has been privy to the secrets of the Otherworld.
In those stories, she might return to glory, to a happy ending, to heal the ordinary world of its woes. But there are other stories. In these, the golden cup, the enchanted sword, the sack of golden coins: she tries to show them to her family, and they wither and change: a nutshell, a dry stick, a pile of leaves and cobwebs. The treasure glitters no more. She has nothing to show for it.
This is what I want to say: when we have seen the things we’ve seen, when we have known the things we know, how does it not change us, change us utterly? How do we bring it back into the ordinary world? How do we keep that little flame alight, that we have seen blaze with light, like a fallen star in our hand?
When we return from our wandering, whether we have been to a place here in the Middle World where the Otherworld’s voice bleeds through the veil, or on an inner journey down into the Dark, or through the empyrean, soaring with the Shining Ones, how do we hold onto the magic, keep it alive, without it withering in our grasp, to a handful of dust, to a pile of twigs and leaves?
We awaken to the ordinary world, and it dulls and numbs us, until we fall asleep once more. For a while, we keep a little of the glimmer; walking down an ordinary city street at dusk, we raise our eyes to the sliver of moon, feel the shiver of enchantment, see the spark of glowing soul in the eyes of everyone we meet. But it fades. Before we know it, we are trudging with our eyes cast down. We are worrying about the bills to pay and forms to fill, the endless ranks of endless, quotidian tasks to accomplish, the to-do list, the should-have-already-done list, the shopping list. We look up in a haze from our desk, and night has fallen. The rain sweeps in over the city streets, and we hustle down the crowded pavement, with a half-broken umbrella, shoulder our way onto the bus or train, lose ourselves in the constant flow of breaking news and ephemera scrolling down the screen of our phone, music in our headphones cutting us off from the crowd of other people, all eyes down on the little glow from the portal in their hand, a constant stream of glittering images. All that glitters is not gold. This is not gold. In the crowd, we are alone. If we look up, dazed from the torrent of words and pictures, we do not see a host of shining souls. We see tired, desolate, slumped bodies, crowded against each other, but alone. Each one alone.
Perhaps we’ve tried to share our secret. Have you ever tried to tell someone who’s never been there? Outrage would be better, let alone understanding, but instead they look up from their reality TV show, or their spreadsheet, their eyes clouded, and say “Oh? That’s nice. Sounds like just your kind of thing.” And then they look away once more. They do not understand. Have you ever met one of the Others? You know how it goes. There is a fey gleam in the eye that we sometimes recognize. You meet at a party, or sit next to each other at a lecture. Something in the way they dress, a book they carry. There is a shock of recognition. Or someone you have known for a long time, on a detour of a conversation, lets slip an idea about the memory of stones, the voices from the shadows. The urgent conversation, well into the night, the thoughts spilling over, the eyes brimming with long-held tears, a quiver in the chest of rising excitement: you’ve seen it too, you’ve been there, you know the secret too … One such said to me once: “How is it that knowing what we know, having seen what we’ve seen, we are not shining beings of love and power … all the time?” You ask yourself the same question, as you turn with a groan to the dirty dishes, the piles of laundry, as your temper snaps and you shout at the fussing, impossible child. Why am I not glorious? Why do I not burn like a beacon in the night?
The feeling has faded. The gold has crumbled into dross. We cannot live at that pitch of ecstasy and agony all the time; our too-human frames were not made for that. You are always tempted, every time, when you go there, to never come back. “Come away, human child, to the waters and the wild,” Yeats’s fairies said. They sang that siren song. The stories are full of those that were Taken, but we know that they stepped willingly into the procession of the Fair Ones, that they crossed the threshold into the Mound, that they gave themselves wholeheartedly to the dance that never ends. They knew, as we know, that “the world’s more full of weeping, than you can understand”. They knew what they were leaving behind, and they left anyway.
But we chose to stay. “If they came for me now, I would go with them,” I once said. I spoke of the Bright Host. Those I spoke to must have thought I meant the men in white coats. But I decided not to go. For the ordinary world is where we live. We were not meant to be hermits or saints, or vagabonds forever. We chose the home and hearth, we chose to build and grow, to reap and sow. We cannot dance under moonlight forever. We chose to love and be loved, and to brave all the travails and troubles of this world. And our heart aches, for we know what we are missing. We chose to grow old. To love, and then to lose.
Some time though, as Autumn fades, and the nights draw in, one chilly, gloomy morning, your head still fuzzy with the fast-fading dreams that troubled you, the day’s tasks mounting before you in an impossible, insurmountable, insignificant hill, you pull on last Winter’s coat. Your hand pushes into the pocket, and amongst the ticket-stubs and spare buttons, your fingers brush something hard and cold. You draw it out. A coin. It glitters. Gold.
And that night, as your children drift off to sleep, as you hold their warm and weary bodies, you whisper them a story. “Once upon a time, there was a girl, who lived in a high, dark house in town. And one day, she found a forest at the bottom of her garden, where strange fronds and feathery mosses grew, and where stranger folks flitted and gathered, and beckoned her to come with them. She looked back at the house, as the enchantment wrapped its loving tendrils round her, and she said, ‘I promise. One day I’ll come home. I’ll always come home.’”
Ivernus has been studying the occult and the weird all his life, and inscribing spells and stories in leatherbound books since he was very young. A devotee of wild, ancient, and lonely places, a speaker to spirits and practitioner of magic, he has recently felt the call to minister and mediate between this world and the Otherworld, and has found himself on the Path of Druidry … only to discover that he had been walking it all along, and only now looked back and seen where he was coming from.