My Ancestors Must Have Been Beasts
Sometimes I feel my ancestors must have been beasts. When I dig into that cording in my gut that drags out in a twisting line across oceans and centuries, it seems impossible that I share a core with gentlefolk in layers of well-ironed wool or ship captains in starched overcoats with finely trimmed facial hair. I try to picture myself in their lantern-lit homes, but the walls feel claustrophobic and the petticoats feel itchy and I can’t catch a full breath in a laced-up corset. No, these people were not my ancestors.
I think about the lunatics of Victoria’s England, running wild on the moors, the ones who gave lunacy its name. London’s lycanthropes: tearing off buckled boots to feel the marsh squish between their bare toes, whooping and hollering and howling at the moon which hangs so low over that mist-covered island country. Those trapped in stone-walled asylums thrash themselves against the bricks, banging their shoulder harder and harder against their cell and rattling their chains, crying out to their pack-brothers on the surface world above.
When I wake up in the middle of the night, I throw a thin robe around my naked self and tiptoe through the house. I open the door of my suburban home and step out onto the wet grass. Goosebumps run up my legs and a shiver crawls through my gut as the cold dewdrops sink into my pale skin, wrinkling my toes. I breathe in heavy through my mouth to taste the water in the air. There’s a sweetness to it, like the cloying half-taste on the back of the tongue after I swallow a mouthful of honey. It tastes clean.
When I see the moon shining full and heavy, like an overripe fruit that promises deep red juice if I could just sink my teeth into it, the twisted rope in my gut tugs my fingers towards my car keys. There’s a whisper that tells me to chase the moon as far as the roads go, and when I reach the end of the pavement, leave the car behind and chase it further into the woods, chase it over the rocks and through the brush and into the dark. I could run faster on all fours, it whispers. I go back inside and try unsuccessfully to fall asleep.
When I look at the back of my hands, paper-pale in the winter, thin scars from rosebush scrapes and cat scratches so visible over the indigo threading of veins, I try and imagine them darker. I know that the darkest skin that stretched across their knuckles must have been tanned dark by a heavy-hanging southeastern sun and that the calloused, tan fingers were just as likely to have wrapped around a whip as they were the handles of a gardener’s shears.
My fingers refuse to form one shape for too long. They fiddle and fidget and fight with each other, clasping and releasing. The finger next to the decade-broken pinky pops and unpops, making a dull noise where the knuckle bones jam and scrape against each other. When my mind untethers, they twist themselves into language, spelling out letter by letter phrases and words overheard or half-remembered. It’s rare I even use the sign language I learned years ago and rarer that I make an effort to study it, but my fingers always remember it, taking it of their own volition the moment I am distracted enough to set them free and let them speak.
My fingers twist and flex and writhe like earthworms after a storm, bleached pale by moonlight. I try to imagine my ancestors holding their hands like marble-white statues, clasping them still in prayer. My fingertips feel chilled when I picture it and the harder I try to hold my hands still the more they tremble. My knucklebones ache when I force them into the shapes logic says their ancestors held, the muscles tight, until I allow my hands to fall into the shape they want. They curve in on themselves and dig into warm, shallow dirt with joy. The winter swathe of pale across the back of them turns summer-dark and darker still, warmed by the sun and stained by the blackberries they used to dye their daughter’s dresses. They must have been strong, clever hands with fingers that swept cobwebs from their face as they walked deeper into the red cypress woods. They dragged up jalap flowers by its roots and broke apart rotted logs to gather autumn skullcaps. They ground herbs and oils into a poultice that must be applied on the night of the new moon, or else not again for another two months.
When I walk through the right kind woods, the ones where summer boils the humid air and Spanish moss sways above like a thousand hanged men, my hands drag across the tops of leaves. I knock the warm puddles of rainwater off of elephant ears and tickle at the Velcro of lichens on rough bark. I crouch to draw patterns in the dirt: long, curving symbols that twist around like an ouroboros. My fingers skip over poison ivy without me remembering what the plant’s leaf is shaped like. They trace around holes in tree trunks where brightly-coloured beetles crawl from moments after my touch leaves. The hand that does not touch twitches and flexes and writes in the air, spelling out words in the language I taught it once. My fingers speak at my side, spelling out V-O-O-D-O-O and H-O-O-D-O-O and W-I-T-C-H-W-O-M-A-N.
Sometimes, I manage to notice one of the whitewashed steeples around me as more than set dressing. Churches are easy to ignore; life in the South means they’re everywhere, none of them more distinct than the other. When I find myself recognizing the high windows as a place of significance, I try to imagine my ancestors sitting in pews. There’s French Catholic, on my grandfather’s side. How could my ancestors walk the streets below the towering forces of cathedrals and not feel the presence of God? I wonder if they woke hours before dawn to bake bread before they funneled into a small farm-town church, or if they tied silk scarves over their heads and joined hundreds on their city-street parsonage towards the great doors of Notre Dame?
But in my family, we never met my grandfather’s brothers. I know he spoke French, but the only French word shared in our home was our name for him: Pepere. There was a rosary and a crucifix that hung on the wall of my grandparent’s room, but I cannot remember anyone pointing them out to me, cannot remember anyone telling me the story of a bleeding Bethlehemian who seemed to be impossible to kill. I know these objects were there, but the stories were absent.
Instead, my family told me stories about my grandmother’s side. My Amma was born in Iceland, I was told. It is a land that freezes over in every spot it can and where it can’t, molten rock bubbles just below the surface. There are huldufolk in the hills, Hannah, they told me. Fairies and elves that build homes in the solidified lava, threading white wildflowers into braids of long, green grass. There are trolls in the mountains of Iceland, I was told, and the trolls are the mountains. They rumble across the lavafields at night, but if they are not hidden in their caves before the sun rises, they become the stone itself.
My grandmother wore a thin gold chain with a cross around her neck, but she showed me a three-inch-high statue of a bearded man holding a geometric hammer. She placed it in my hand so I could feel the carved stone myself and told me I was holding the God of Storms. I repeated his name after her. No, Hannah-mein, she corrected, Oh-deen-sun, and I repeated until I could mimic the accented syllables.
I sit in the back of a parking lot of a church and think about going in. The weave in my gut pulls my fingers towards the steering wheel, pulls me away from the doors. I try to picture clean white walls beside polished wooden pews but the smell of fresh paint gives me a headache. The voice in my gut whispers heathen, heathen.
I read about Ragnar’s Seige of Paris. With one hundred and twenty Viking ships, Ragnar Lodbrok took the city for all it was worth. With five thousand men, Ragnar strode through the streets, pillaging and ransacking. He spilled blood on church steps and ripped filigree from the temple walls . He wasn’t driven out; the French king paid them a ransom and they sailed back up the Seine with all of the gold and silver and women they desired.
I try and listen to the hum of my blood, the stirring mixture from my grandparent’s grandparent’s grandparents. It should be a fifty-fifty divide, a parental split, but I read about Ragnar’s Seige of Paris and the wild thrum in my veins does not hesitate to take a side.
Hannah Melin is a writer working out of Dallas, Texas. She studied Creative Writing at the University of Central Florida where she worked as the Fiction Editor for The Cypress Dome literary magazine. After undergrad, she worked as a literacy teacher for the Peace Corps on islands throughout the Eastern Caribbean.
Her nonfiction work has been featured in Missouri’s Big Muddy literary magazine and her fiction has been published in Monkeybicycle and The Metaworker.
Photo by Baraa jalahej on Pexels.com