She softly pads down the long hall, the first memory shining bright through the cracks in the door. “We won’t talk to you for a whole week,” her brothers tell her, as punishment for some wrongdoing, for being vulnerable, for seeking protection. They sneer at the little girl, and her eyes are flooded with shameful tears, the sinking knowing of being alone and unlovable. “Fine, I won’t talk to you for two weeks then!” She screeches in response, unable to contain the sob emerging from her chest, grasping at a power that she knows isn’t really there. They laugh. They say they are glad, and would be just as happy if she never spoke again. The door closes on her silence, the little girl holding the sinking feeling inside her, into an emptiness where love should be.
“No one cares for you,” the memory reminds her. “You must always be prepared to be alone.” She drums this wisdom close to her chest, for it is what keeps her safe when the memories come, from being rejected by others who can’t truly love her.
A few doors down, she sees herself screaming at the top of a staircase, crying out for the comfort of her mother. She doesn’t remember why she is so distressed, only that it has gotten a hold of her and she is overwhelmed by its power, she can’t seem to subdue it, which frightens her more, as she is so accustomed to harnessing every emotion so as not to be burdensome or vulnerable to another soul. Her mother climbs up the steps, sighing with intense disapproval. “You are such a wimp,” she says to the little girl, heavy with disdain.
“There is no one to comfort you,” the memory reminds her. “Vulnerability is weakness. It will turn others away and it will be your fault.” She beats her drum, clasping it to her like a shield.
In the next room, she stands admiring a beautiful white stallion, among a group of children preparing to ride. The little girl watches her face fall in disappointment, as another little girl is chosen to ride the stallion and is placed at the front of the line of horses, and she is given a small grey donkey, relegated to the back of the line. The lesson of this memory burns strong: “Who do you think you are? You’re nothing special so stop acting like it.”
Other memories are tended to:
“The things you love are stupid. You must be stupid.”
“Men will only prey upon you, they don’t really care about you. If you don’t protect yourself you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.”
“You’ll probably not amount to much. None of us ever do.”
As each memory is conjured, the little girl holds her drum, the rhythmic beating of their wisdom as her very heart, the routine offering safety and security, ensuring she will never again step out of line, trying to be someone she shouldn’t, trying to get something she doesn’t deserve, only to be rejected, abandoned, cast out. She belongs to her not belonging, and it is the only comfort she has in this rambling house.
Sometimes she visits the large picture window in the front of her home. She sees through the eyes of her adult self, a little girl in grown-up clothes, walking to the steady thrum of her daily reminders:
“No one is here to comfort you.”
“You’ll never amount to much.”
“You don’t deserve that love you long for.”
“Just get through one more day, and maybe they won’t find out what a fraud you are.”
“Who do you think you are, anyway?”
She beats her drum, to stay safe and secure.
Sometimes there are downstairs memories that demand tending, those that are not her own. The downstairs rooms were built by her parents, grandparents, and some by ancestors from long ago that left memories without words or images, only vague fears knit into her very bones. The basement room of her mother’s mother, debilitated with mental illness, unable to care for her children, left with their father, an abusive and hateful man. Her father’s mother, giving birth out of wedlock, her child taken to an orphanage until she was married to a man who resented her first child, for being a bastard. Ancestral memories that are howls of a darker time, when women were burned alive for their power, and men sold themselves into servitude. This drumming is deeper and the rhythm is shrouded in mystery. In these memories, the drum plays through her, teaching her the pulse of centuries of sorrow and grief.
These are the stories of her people, all belonging to their not belonging. Her only comfort.
She watches the grown up little girl move through her life, sometimes in joy but often in crippling fear. She presses on, refusing to give up, but knowing that she is not well, all is not well. There’s nothing for it, though. These are the houses we built, and now we must live in them.
The little girl drums dutifully, a song of protection and safety. A song of fear and longing.
Behind the house, there is a wood. It is dark and ominous, and she has been warned more times than can be counted that the forest is wild and dangerous. There is even a special room with a memory about her own wildness, shamed out of her with biting words of condemnation. “Girls shouldn’t get muddy and play with frogs and lizards. It’s filthy and disgusting, and so are you.”
Some nights, when the moon is full, she hears the wolves howling on the ridge far away, which causes her to fear both the wolves and the moon. Why would they howl at it so, if it wasn’t also evil? For surely the wolves are evil, as well as the wood itself, to shelter such wild beasts who yip and roar, threatening death to any who would dare enter their territory?
A shiver runs through the little girl, and she puts the dark forest out of her mind. She focuses on her daily task, walking her halls, collecting her memories, watching the story of her life unfold, drumming her heartbeat-song of protection for the grown up little girl in the picture window.
Now something is happening through the window. The grown up girl is writing, sobbing, hot tears streaming down cheeks and dripping onto paper. The house becomes warm, echoing the heat of tears and shame and the end of something important. Her fear has filled her so completely, there are no more rooms for memories. No more space for the wisdom of her drum, the belonging of not belonging. The little girl beats the drum in a panic, warning of danger, not knowing what will happen if the memories are freed from the rooms. The grown up girl stands in front of a fire, determination searing through her chest, the paper clutched in hand. The little girl feels the settling inside, a decision made by her grown up, and dread surrounds her.
A howl sears through the air, and her blood turns to ice. The little girl runs to the door, locking it with shaking fingers. She continues to drum frantically, her only safety, her only comfort. More howls come, surrounding the house, and there is the sound of another drum, stronger and slower than the quick pulse of the little girl. It is coming from the ridge, deep in the wood. She looks out a back window and sees a great fire burning at the top, with great loud yips and roars from the woods.
She is crouched in a corner now, eyes closed, the heat overwhelming her, drum beating. The doors in the hallways begin to pulse with the beating of her drum. The memories want out, are demanding to be freed. There is no more room for them, no more room for pain and abandonment and doubt and fear. The little girl is frozen in terror. She knows she cannot manage all of the memories at once. She knows they will overtake her. She will be consumed by panic and flame.
In an instant, the doors explode in light and heat. The memories come howling out, swallowed by the great blaze. There is no choice but to run.
The little girl flees, plunging into the darkness of the humming forest. Her heart becomes the drum, pulsing with the pounding of her bare feet on cool earth. There is a howl behind her, and she runs faster. Up up up the ridge, briars tear her clothes, scratch the flesh of her cheeks and arms and legs, her hair tangles and pulls in the clawing branches. She does not know where she is headed, but her legs are carrying her of their own volition as if they remember a safe place that her mind cannot recall.
As she goes deeper into the woods, she feels the strength of her body, the power of her thighs and the sturdiness of her feet, the exhilaration of breath filling lungs, sharpness of vision in the dark. She smells the fecund scents of the forest around her: rotting leaves giving birth to mushroom buttons, pine pitch and cedar bark and baby birds and bear droppings and the ripe dankness of damp fur. Her body is tiring. She can sense the wolf behind her, its breath hot and fierce. It drives her on, but her fear is melting away with each determined footfall. She knows she cannot outrun it but is comforted by the embrace of the earth surrounding her, she can feel the trees watching her movements and encouraging her, and she begins to remember something deep and ancient inside her. It is cool and mossy, and steadies her pace, reminding her of something that feels like trust.
Behind her, the house has been swallowed by fire, timbers cracking like gunshots in the night, sparks lighting up the sky. The wolf too, is fire, as it snaps at her heels. She continues to run towards the steady drum beat on the ridge, away from one fire and towards another, for she is fire as well. As the wolf catches up to her, fear is gone, and she welcomes the end of the pursuit. The heat of the wolf envelopes her, and she feels her flesh burn away. Overtaken with release and surrender, something remarkable happens.
She is now moving with the wolf, their bodies melding as one in the blaze of transformation. She rides as if they are flying, she can feel the powerful muscles of the wolf’s haunches propelling them both up the ridge as if they were her own, and the breath of the wolf becomes her breath, their hearts madly beating a song of freedom, of power, of wildness. The sharp slickness of long razor teeth and the metallic taste of blood on her tongue. A growl rumbling in her animal belly. The little girl is gone. They become one as they move, and her little girl bones are shed and transformed to a woman, wolf-woman, wild woman, forest woman.
The trees become grander and more ancient as the wolf-woman paces up the ridge. In her feral state, she hears their whispers of excitement and welcome, the thorny brush parting for her arrival, crossing a threshold into a world of dreams, of lost stories and moon dancing and passionate belonging. A world of magic and intuition where language is not in words but in breath and touch and scent and desire.
The wolf-woman comes upon a clearing, exhilarated and fully alive, fear transformed to fierceness, her skin glowing with the fire of her beating heart. She is a daughter of fire and earth, and she knows she has found her home. She looks far down on the burning house and sees the old structures that she believed meant safety, perceiving now that they kept her small and hidden, silenced her voice and muted her wildness. She sees the great bonfire above and there are wolves and women dancing all around it, wolf-women beating the drum of the heart of the earth itself.
The women greet her with open arms and laughing songs. “Welcome sister! We have been calling you for a long time now. Come join in our dance! Come share our fire!” Their bodies are painted with black, brown, and red markings in the shapes of stars and hands and blade and earth.
The knowing within her deepens, widens, awakens. She steps into the throng, remembering the familiar shape of the hands of her sisters holding hers, the song of the earth-drumbeat-heart that is her heart, the warmth of fire of freedom and wildness. Then grief follows, for she has been gone for so long. She has missed this place that she couldn’t even remember in her little-girl body, for she couldn’t hold such magnificence in such a small embodiment of life as the person who walked the halls of her fear and abandonment and isolation.
Her sisters surround her in her sorrow, for they too felt the grief of separation once they remembered this true earth-heart connection. They put hands on her back, wipe her tears and wail with her sobs. “Yes,” they tell her, “we too, had forgotten the old ways. We must call all of our sisters back to us here, to this safe place where we can be free and wild and fierce and loving.”
Quiet now descends upon the circle of women, and Grandmother Wolf steps forward into the glow of fire light, holding the beating-earth-drum. She has a story to tell and the dancing wolf-women sit in reverence at her feet. Grandmother’s face is lined with centuries of tending the fire and beating the drum, many years spent alone singing the prayer of return and remembering, knowing that we would someday find the way back to her. She speaks:
“You were born of the Earth and she is within you, your bones are the branches of her trees, your thighs the curves of the rolling hills, laughter the song of birds and dance of dragonflies. Your heart beats with the thrumming of the ocean waves and your womb is the crystal caverns deep in the belly of rock. Your voice is the howl of wolves and now is the time for your voices to be heard again. Now is the time for remembering who you truly are, and where you come from.
“We are not separate from anything here, this is a lie you have been told to keep you from remembering that the Earth is inside you. This is like when a child grows in his mother’s womb, her heartbeat is as familiar and dear to him as his own. To separate the two hearts after birth is a deep wounding to the hearts of mother and child. Just as you have been wounded by the separation from the earth-heart-drum, and you only had the company of your own heart drums. This caused you to feel alone and scared. But my loves, you are not alone. You belong here, with the wisdom of the trees and the fullness of the moon and the fire-dance and the body of the Earth under you, and you are safe here. Welcome home, dear ones.
“You must claim the wolf inside you, for she protects you and keeps you wild. You must walk with her the steps of remembering the old ways. In doing this, we create a new world, for that is how the wheel of time turns. The spiral of the world brings us back to ourselves, and moves us forward to growth and new life. This, too, you have forgotten. Your wolf will help you remember the rhythms of Earth, of life, death and rebirth. She will help you tend the fire of passion and creation and transformation, she will fiercely guard that which is precious to you. You are no longer required to sacrifice yourself for safety and belonging. You are safe. You belong with us.
“Remember this story, carry it with your drum-heart, and beat your drum with the heart of the Earth Mother.”