Norns

      

Craig Chalquist

An Archetale in the Assembling Terrania Cycle.

 

“The evolution of consciousness,” stated Kluni the Power, “is bunk.”

On Earth, the planet under discussion by curious Powers of the cosmos, Kluni the trickster had gone by a thousand names, some male, some female, many neither: Hare and Turtle and Spider, Aunt Nancy, Bobbi-bobbi, Mercury, Maui, Hermes, Iambe, Narada, Ixtab, Ame-no-Uzume… Beyond Earth’s atmosphere, the unexpected nova, the interruption of a quasar beam, the colliding asteroid bringing life to a target planet revealed Kluni’s intergalactic signature.

“I am inclined to agree,” sighed Doja, Power of death. A dusty sirocco blew across the Sahara. “My bias, of course,” he acknowledged drily, “is to err on the side of entropy.”

It was not that Doja caused death, or that the other archetypal Powers intervened directly in the operations of the cosmos. Rather, they stood behind events like a tonic note contextualizing musical chords.

“Both of you,” argued Unda, “are ignoring the force of growth. Not only molecules up from atoms and stellar systems out of gravity and gas, but the spans of life allotted to mortal beings on many worlds, including this one.” (None of this was verbal communication, of course. Unda’s “comment” was a green blossom opening despite the howling desert wind.)

“And the possibilities for expansion of mind and choice that always accompany growth,” added expansive Pandere, ever the optimist.

“Life makes its own path,” said Zoe.

“I draw your attention to actual conditions on Earth,” replied Kluni with a gesture for Cronicus to attend. The Power of Time spun their group vision through history….

“There,” said Kluni, and Cronicus froze the frame. Kluni “pointed” as the planet Mercury wobbled out of the ecliptic:

“Earth, 2021. Or at least what we can glimpse of it through the pollution. The most notable fact about the so-called evolution of consciousness, at least in so-called Homo sapiens, is that their industrialized rapacity has damaged 90% of the biosphere. Indeed, they are in danger of going extinct. Racism, fascism, sexism, corruption, and dogma-driven zealotry are all booming on their overheating planet. So is lucrative weapons production.” As the Power behind wealth transactions and shady deals, Kluni was in a position to know.

“So how is any of this ‘progress’ over where they were in, say, 6000 BCE? I give them a 30/70 chance of surviving their own folly, and the odds are worsening rapidly.”

At first Vaeda, wisest among them, felt tempted to counter with a list of human greatnesses, but she realized this would be futile. Offering such a list would also discount Kluni’s argument. After all, he too played a valid part in the Creator Radantia’s grand experiment in consciousness, here as well as elsewhere across the universe.

“I agree with Kluni,” she said, startling everyone.

“You do?” asked Pandere, appalled.

“To a point, yes. The human species is not making linear progress. A species that allows itself to be blinded, bullied, and ordered around by the ambitious and unscrupulous century after century can hardly be considered a mature one. If anything, they are going in the other direction.

“And look how stuck to us they still are, each group worshiping from within its own sad little sect. Is it not apt that some of them view Mars as a possible home once they have finished warring on what remains of Earth?” At this, Bellum nodded. “Mars” had been one of his names down there.

“Then,” asked Paesha, “our grand experiment has failed there?”

“Once Earth heals,” observed Terkwa, “and humans vanish, other species will come forward.”

“‘To a point,’ you said,” Kluni growled. The inventor of gambling was not to be distracted by any shuffling of cards—or arguments.

Vaeda smiled. “The crux is how we conceive of evolution. When species evolve physically, they adapt to their changing environments. When they evolve consciously, they move from infancy through adolescence into adulthood—if they survive. We’ve seen it happen elsewhere.

“That kind of evolution is not linear. It may seem linear because time often runs that way in this plenum. Young organisms grow old and die. Stars and planets and galaxies come into being and vanish. The flow of time looks steady, predictable, and eternal.”

“But not always,” said Cronicus.

“Not always. In imagination, in dream, in visionary states, during acts of creativity, near lightspeed, within black holes, and at the quantum level, time plays tricks, moves back on itself, slows, stops, even reverses. Sometimes it leaps ahead.”

She gave them a moment to reflect, then continued:

“Roughly 4.5 billion years ago, Earth was newly formed, waterless and airless. As its heaviest metals descended through magma and gathered at the core, there to generate a protective magnetic field, the rocky surface gradually cooled. An atmosphere began to form: not breathable, but a beginning. Earth gained a stately rotation. So far, so good.

“Then Earth collided with a Mars-sized planet. The surfaces of both were vaporized as gigantic blobs of magma blasted outward. What remained of Earth glowed dull red through a black, glassy crust etched with molten rains and ringed high above with rocky debris. Meteor strikes intensified. A day was now five hours.”

“It was quite a smash,” said Bellum, who had backed it.

“From a young world with fair prospects for later life,” Vaeda went on, “Earth deteriorated in less than an hour into a vivid version of what human mythology pictured as a fiery Hell and stayed that way for millions of years. Progress, then? Or regress?”

“Well, it depends on what scale of time we use,” said Cronicus in his measured way. “In the short term, the collision was a catastrophic setback. In the long run, though, the debris formed a moon that helped slow Earth’s rotation and stabilize its oceans and atmosphere. Life appeared relatively soon after the cataclysm.”

“Are you suggesting?” Kluni asked Vaeda skeptically, “that, despite temporary setbacks, human consciousness is evolving in the long run? They might not even be around long enough to see the finish line! Some progress.” The sports metaphor caught Cempa’s wandering attention, as perhaps it was intended to do. Kluni made tactical allies as easily as he traded them in for new ones.

“Earth might not have survived the collision. Luna might not have. What initiation is certain?”

“Perhaps,” mused Magus, “they are unconsciously setting up their own contemporary collision analog. Could they be turning Earth into a furnace in order to plunge into the boiling crucible of their own urgent maturation?”

“If so, they are killing off a lot of other life to do it,” said Wildia with a shudder.

Having directed their focus where she wanted it, Vaeda now disclosed her proposal.

“It is not just a question of time and its vagaries, but of how deeply each human adventure in consciousness polishes the collective soul, laying up treasures for later retrieval during the long, uneven struggle toward species self-awareness.

“I suggest considering three examples of women who worked deeply with that soul but were attacked for doing so, their work disregarded initially but recognized eventually as immensely pivotal and infinitely precious. None of the three exerted a direct, linear impact on the march of human history, although all three became known as historical figures.

“Rather, these gems of humanity belong to the Transdaimonic League of visionaries with a gnostic awareness of possibility as it seeks them out, each in her own day.”

Cronicus reached out and drew back the curtains of Time…


Khana’s original name was Ksharna, “Moment,” because she was born at the right time in the right place: the village of Deuli in West Bengal. She was also called Lilavati, “Charming” or “Graceful.”

Her time was anything but. As she learned astrology, agriculture, meteorology, mathematics, and poetry composition, three empires fought for control of what would become Northern India. The Rashtrakutas came out temporarily on top, but by the end of the ninth century, they had weakened enough to be conquered by King Taila II, who founded the Western Chalukya Empire to the south. But the struggle raged on.

Almost from the start of her writing, her lyric verses were taken as folksy agricultural common sense. For example,

thakte balad na kare chas

tar dukhkha baro mas:

 

He who owns oxen, but does not plough,

his sorry state lasts twelve months of the year.

Few realized at the time, or even later, that Khana meant something deeper: that the failure to make good use of one’s resources at the proper time risks ill fortune. The gifts we neglect have a way of turning on us.

Did learning astrology teach her to understand the symbolism of events, or had she always? Impossible to know. But we do know that she trained her husband Mihir, son of Varahamihira, who entered the court of Vikramaditya as an astrologer of repute thanks to her. When father and son needed celestial-terrestrial guidance, they turned to her for a deeper divination of the meaning of unfolding events. Beyond that, she convinced Varahamihira that Mihir, born on a supposedly inauspicious day, was worthy of every consideration. Only the greatest adepts know when to challenge the very heavens.

Vikramaditya made her the court astrologer.

Some say that Varahamihira grew so envious of and intimidated by Khana’s knowledge of astrology, country lore, and sacred scripture that he ordered her tongue cut out. Although silenced, the dismembered tongue was eaten by a gecko, leading to the notion that the animal’s clicks attest to the truthfulness of whomever is speaking. So Khana continued to be a better oracle and scholar than either her husband or father-in-law, and the gecko spoke for her, as the Earth had borne witness to Sita after Rama had wronged her.

If wild fires, crop shortage, cyclones and epidemics occur at the same time, know that your king is corrupt and that the citizens are suffering because of the sins of the king.

—Khana’s Words (Khanar Bachan)

She also continued to found a uniquely Bengali early literature. Her two-line proverbs masterfully blended the rustic and everyday—weather, crops, the tending of livestock—with the profound, which she put in reach of farmers and laborers. Her advice was also practical: where to plant or dig a pond, how to till the soil, when to harvest, which direction a home should face.

She learned from injustice without forgetting and without being overcome, taking her own advice: “A little bit of salt, a little bit of bitter, and always stop before you are too full.” She also cautioned farmers not to listen to bad news before taking up the plow. Beginnings are delicate occasions.

She never left Bengal, but she knew how to interpret the world, and her imagination spanned the cosmos. She considered the stars her extended family, always to be listened to and respected but not always to be agreed with.

Centuries after her death, Khana’s name reappeared in a southern Bengal mound of earthen brick, as though Sita, having sunk from view, had returned, stepping forth from the ruins of the once-powerful rulers who had tried to silence her. They are gone, but farmers in Bengal and Bangladesh still follow the poet-oracle’s advice.


Shortly before of the Northern Song Dynasty of China fell, another poet worked with her husband to preserve precious ancient books, calligraphy, etchings, and other works of art. She had been a poet before marrying him in 1101. As a teen she had written two poems on the restoration of the Tang dynasty after An Lushan’s rebellion failed.

They loved one another dearly, united by affection and common passion. The rooms of their house filled with irreplaceable works of incomparable artisanship. They catalogued these works together, assembling the most comprehensive list of ancient wonders then available.

Not that the work was always serious. They made time to play together as a couple. They competed in friendly games, drank wine of an evening, recited poetry, made love. She wrote:

It happens that I have a good memory, and in the evenings after dinner we would sit in our hall named Returning Home and brew tea. We’d point to a pile of books and, choosing a particular event, try to say in which book, which chapter, which page, and which line it was recorded. The winner of our little contest got to drink first. When I guessed right, I’d hold the cup high and burst out laughing until the tea splattered the front of my gown. I’d have to get up without even taking a sip. Oh, how I wished we could grow old living like that!

It was not to be. In 1127, their happy life together fell apart. The Jurchens of Manchuria invaded, and Kaifeng, the Northern Song capital, fell to the onslaught. When the Jurchens attacked Shandong, the couple fled their burning house, taking as much art and literature with them as they could carry packed into fifteen carts. For much of the trip the followed the fleeing Song emperor as the oncoming invaders installed a mail-fist regime.

Cold window, a broken deskwithout my books.

The government road led to this misery.

Qin officials love cash, the circle with a hollow square.

Meddlers bustle in droves under the winter sun.

I shut the door against callers to write a poem.

Li’s husband Zhao Mingcheng was given government reassignment and took his leave. Their parting was tearful. She waited months to hear from him. She wrote him letters he did not answer.

Only later did she learn that he had died on the journey to take up his new post.

I’ve heard spring is still lovely at Twin Streams,

I’d like to go boating in a light skiff there

But fear the tiny grasshopper boats they have

Would not carry

Such a quantity of sorrow.

 

I inquire of traveling clouds

the whereabouts

of my beloved in the east…

The grieving widow settled in Hangzhou, where she continued composing poetry and finished her husband’s book on inscriptions on bronze artifacts from the Zhou and Shang periods. Her losses accumulated: not only of her collections, coveted by the emperor and some stolen by thieves, but through marriage to a husband who abused her and wanted only what was left of her fortune. She took the unheard-of step of divorcing him in the face of waves of public shaming and even a spell in prison.

Nothing deterred her from writing, which she did more of now than ever before. Twice, she showed up at the imperial palace to read seasonal poems to the emperor and empress, who welcomed her. She advised on matters scholarly and artistic. She sold calligraphy scrolls to support herself. She wrote song lyrics; some ended up much later in Japan. Even at this late date, she took steps to rebuild her life.

Last night, a strong wind drove sparse rain;

deep slumber failed to thin the wine.

At daybreak, I queried the screen-rolling servant,

who replied: Why, the crabapple tree is as always.

Don’t you see, don’t you see?

How the foliage is robust green

yet floral redness, thin frailty.

She died quietly, perhaps anonymously, unaccompanied by fanfare or funerary texts. But her poetry, written in shi form, exquisitely humane and soulful, preserved poignant moments from the chaotic flux of history, warfare, and politics that rolled onward long after her passing away.

Perhaps creation was stirred by inspiration

to instruct the clear bright moon

in gently rendering the earth’s translucence.


When Lucille Clifton was born in 1936, she came in not with ten fingers, but with twelve. This genetic trait made symbolic sense. Should a poet not possess some extra dexterity of touch? After the digits were amputated, she thought of them as ghost fingers.

After growing up in Buffalo, she attended college (not an easy thing for a Black woman to do in 1936, but she was determined), married a philosopher who sculpted and acted, as did she, raised six children with him while working full time, and wrote poetry both before and after his death. Having been published by Langston Hughes, she brought out Good Times, a collection of her poetry and New York Times Best Book, in 1969.

This led to hard-earned recognition: poet-in-residence at Coppin State College, Poet Laureate of Maryland, visiting writer at Columbia and George Washington University, professor of literature and writing at UC Santa Cruz, Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary’s College, fellow at Dartmouth and for the National Endowment for the Arts, award after award for collection after collection of poetry, two books as Pulitzer Prize finalists in the same year…

All this was in spite of a nation locked in racism and white supremacy. Too often, those who fought back lost their lives, as the examples of King and Malcolm X showed the entire befuddled world. In some ways it was even worse for women.

you have your own story
you know about the fears the tears
the scar of disbelief
you know that the saddest lies
are the ones we tell ourselves
you know how dangerous it is
to be born with breasts
you know how dangerous it is
to wear dark skin

Through it all, she stayed true to her creative and ancestral roots. She felt proud of both, as had her mother before her. Her poetry also cast the much-denigrated Black body as a locus of vital mythology. In one of her essays, Alice Walker referred to a dream of a two-headed woman, a figure who harks back to Clifton’s 1980 award-winning book of poetry and its place in a stream of radical reimaginings of Black perception and pride. In the poem “adam thinking,” the poet reimagines the foundation of Eden:

she
stolen from my bone
is it any wonder
i hunger to tunnel back
inside desperate
to reconnect the rib and clay
and to be whole again
some need is in me
struggling to roar through my
mouth into a name
this creation is so fierce
i would rather have been born

Eve thinks:

….i wait
while the clay two-foot
rumbles in his chest
searching for language to

call me
but he is slow
tonight as he sleeps
i will whisper into his mouth
our names

To “sons” (men), Clifton wrote:

i wish them cramps.
i wish them a strange town
and the last tampon.
i wish them no 7-11….

let them think they have accepted
arrogance in the universe,
then bring them to gynecologists
not unlike themselves.

As she got older, her link to what she thought of as the spirit world grew stronger. From playing with a Ouija board to speak with her dead mother, her contacts multiplied into direct conscious access. She had become the “two-headed woman” known to African American folklore as the matron of powerful intuitive gifts. She also took African astrology and past lives seriously.

Entities she called The Ones warned her in 1978 that human beings were on a dangerous path: “It is what we were saying indeed that there will be on Earth that place which human beings describe to the world of the spirits Hell.” At that time only a handful of environmental scientists were saying anything at all about climate change. By the summer of 2021, entire continents swam in dust storms or floods, and much of the drought-stricken North American West was on fire.

Although she sensed what was coming, she kept going. To interviewer Michael Glaser she stated,  “Writing is a way of continuing to hope.” And: “…perhaps for me it is a way of remembering I am not alone.” She meant alone on the human and cultural plane. Deeper down, she knew she was never alone: “There is some One in each of us greater than the personality we manifest in any life. The soul does not merely select her own society, the soul is her own society.”

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.


“An interesting account,” said Kluni, “if somewhat ineptly told. I suppose you’re now going to argue that each poet made the next one possible. Ergo, evolution of consciousness, tra-la. Improving humanity through versifying.”

“How could they influence each other,” asked Ravina, “across such spans of time and geographical distance?”

“None of them altered history.” Doja’s dry tone was even drier than usual. “Wars and imperial invasions rocked India after Khana died. The Song dynasty ended after Li’s demise, giving way to a series of brutal totalitarian regimes. Lucille Clifton exited in 2010, a year of building climate-driven disasters about which nothing was done. Six years later, with help from racists, the Kremlin, and Facebook, a white supremacist was elected U.S. president.”

“All true,” said Vaeda. “All arguments lethal to a linear model of evolution. But isn’t it possible that these women did much more for human advancement than solutions, reforms, revolutions, or fixes ever could? Surely, it’s important to correct an unjust and injurious law, or to remove corrupt leaders from power. But what if your work is to shed light for all time on a neglected aspect of justice, or to question the very basis of leadership?”

“It must be,” mused Aluere, friend of muses and graces, “that the moving, evocative poetry emanating from such alchemically creative lives infuses collective consciousness beyond the bounds of mere causality. The work of these women immeasurably enriched the soul of humanity. My own nature feels enriched just knowing about what they did.” Watchers on Earth noted the unusual polychromatic beauty of the Northern Lights that evening.

“Although it cannot be explained through simple causality,” put in Ordiri, who liked rational explanations, “Khana smoothed the path somehow for Li, who smoothed it for Clifton, who did the same for countless other creatives. That has to make some lasting difference, even if we cannot measure it.”

“It’s more than that. Such acts give me hope for this species,” said Vaeda. “Even we cannot know how these and other acts and lives will combine some day into a beautiful tapestry to clothe this species in full maturity.”

“Meanwhile,” said Kluni, “they have plenty of other spinning wheels to derail. Perhaps you are right about this deeper view of the evolution of consciousness, but from where I stand archetypally, I’m happy to remain in character, with a long spoke in hand and a song of laughter in my heart.”

Just as Radantia intended, Vaeda thought.


A predawn quiet held the forest in which the wizard Firiel had received her first training from the spiritual form of Whitebeard. Majestic constellations no human would have recognized flickered high overhead.

Three women stood together in the clearing near the big teaching stone. A tall tree with far-reaching branches towered just behind it. None of the women knew how they had arrived there, or who had started the fire burning cheerfully within a circle of stones.

“I have never seen a place like this,” Khana told the other two. She wrapped her sari a trifle tighter against the strengthening breeze and gazed upward in awe at the stars.

“It is lovely here,” said Li, her robe rustling slightly as she looked around at the trees and sky.

“It reminds me of upstate New York.” Lucille was glad for her gray coat and scarf. It was not cold, but it felt like a chill might be coming on.

Instead, the rim of a glittering golden sun in the east flooded the indigo sky with first light. The women stared in appreciation.

“So I guess,” Lucille went on, “we are members of this Transdaimonic League of…well, visionaries and gnostics and creatives.” The others nodded.

“I had wondered how such a League could exist, given that so many of us are now dead,” Khana said. “Evidently, someone has brought us here to the Dreamvale”—the name occurred to her as she spoke it—“so we can be in touch with each other. Presumably, other members and subgroups of the League do this on occasion. Interesting.”

“It reminds me of Chinese tales of estranged lovers or family members finally finding each other.” At Li’s words the others sighed in resonance.

“Well spoken,” said Khana.

“This place looks like a page from an old book of Norse stories. Maybe we too have become mythic.” Lucille thought it over. “Maybe here, our names are actually Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld; or Spinner, Allotter, and Shearer; or Past, Present and Future…” She glanced up at the gigantic tree behind the flat-faced stone.

“Whatever we are, we have served as midwives, and perhaps continue to do so.” As Khana spoke she remembered village women who welcomed so much new life into the world. How important to care for it properly from the very beginning. “We did our best, each of us, in the past. But in important ways not always understood, we continue to be present for humanity, including for people who never heard of us.”

“I’m glad to know you,” Li told her and Lucille. “We aren’t on our own anymore.” They smiled and reached out to clasp hands.

“And after all,“ Lucille pointed out, ”three heads are better than one.”