Star of the Magi ~ 1 ~
Naomi Sandburg always said that there was a particularly bright star in the sky the night Blair was born. Naomi being Naomi, the birth had taken place in an open field 35 miles north of San Francisco. Naomi had been living in a commune there, and was entirely committed to organic farming — which she saw as the only sane and human response to the horrors currently being perpetrated in Vietnam. Tilling the earth was at least productive, and she was glad, all in all, not to have electricity when you considered the nightmarish images of blood and death that now dominated the TV.
She'd been sitting in the commune's main living space — a room full of battered second-hand furniture, the damp and cracked walls covered by brightly colored Indian tapestries and psychedelic posters — when she'd gone into labor. At her request, her friends had dragged her out of the room and into the field beyond the house.
They'd spread blankets on the ground and asked if she wanted pillows for her head or hips — but Naomi groaned and shook her head and made it clear to them that she preferred to squat. Mary-Ann and Rachel squatted beside her and held her hands tightly as she gritted her teeth and pushed, and the men tried to help by drumming rhythmically and trying to make a melody-line out of Naomi's intermittent shrieks. Eventually, as the warm night wore on, Naomi found herself surrounded by people — some singing, others dancing; some playing bongos and tambourines and bells and all of it swimming past her eyes, the bright stars streaking yellow as her eyes blurred with tears. Pain. Joy. This was it, this was the whole of life, compressed into these few hours. Compressed into this agonized ecstasy.
Her head had fallen forward and she'd nearly blacked out when she heard the sudden, piercing cry of a new voice, a new melody. Counterpoint. Naomi lifted her head and gasped desperately for air. Around her, people were standing and staring with wide and awe-struck eyes. Then she was tilting, being laid down, backwards, onto the blanket. Some helpful person tucked a pillow behind her head. She was staring dazedly upward at the black and yellow sky, at the stars, and something was moving between her bent knees — hands were — something fever-hot sliding out of her, the afterbirth and —
She turned her head to the side. "Baby — give me my baby," she said to Mary-Ann. Mary-Ann nodded and turned away, raising her fringe-draped arms. Naomi raised her head off the pillow; they were wrapping her baby in a piece of brightly colored cloth. She extended her own arms as the baby was passed from Leah to Mary-Ann and then to her — and then she looked down at the baby, her baby, her miracle-wonder child: a boy. He was red-faced and screaming and streaked with blood and grayish mucus, and oh my dear Goddess, he was beautiful, all swaddled up in his tie-dyed t-shirt.
Blair, she thought. She held the baby to her breast.
Her friend Sarah fell to her knees on the blanket beside her, and pushed her glasses up her nose. She pulled her Tarot cards from their carefully stitched velvet bag, and Naomi's heart began to beat with excitement. Sarah was a true seer, a woman of tremendous spiritual power.
Sarah flipped the first card onto the blanket; this card, Naomi knew, would tell of her son's past, perhaps indicate something about his past lives. "The Fool," Sarah announced. "The boy is in tune with the harmonic vibrations of the universe. He is an old soul trying to grasp a sense of newness." Blair's tiny fists were, Naomi saw through the blur of her tears, opening and closing, reaching out for something. "He is loved by the Goddess," Sarah said simply, and turned over the next card.
"Whoa," Dave breathed.
Naomi quickly stretched her neck out to see. The Star. "The boy has both intuitive and rational power," Sarah said with satisfaction. "He will walk in two worlds. Your boy has a gift, Naomi," and Naomi raised her eyes to the sky and stared at the single, bright star overhead. She knew that. She was already sure of that.
"Three for three," Sarah murmured, staring down at the last card. "Three for three with the Major Arcana," and what were the odds of that?
It suddenly seemed to Naomi that divine forces were perhaps a little too interested in her son. When Sarah looked up, her eyes did nothing to assuage Naomi's fears. "The Hanged Man," Sarah said somberly — and suddenly, Naomi didn't want to believe any of this. This was all nonsense, some kind of trance-induced hysteria brought on by too much wine and too much weed. She wanted to wrap her son up tightly and take him somewhere safe where there were no bongos and no talismans and no magic. But where was that?
"The Hanged Man," Sarah murmured. "The card of the Dying God. Your son will sacrifice himself — "
"No." Naomi clutched her son protectively. They were all crowding around her and staring at Blair with wide, stoned eyes.
" — for the greater good. He will be asked to renounce himself, or some deep part of himself. But The Hanged Man is also a divine teacher, who will gain vast spiritual riches by the exchange."
"Serious mojo," Dave said in a hushed, respectful voice. There were murmurs of agreement from the others, and then the quick, night-splintering crash of a tambourine.
Bert raised a hand, his bracelets jangling, and carefully drew his thumb across Blair's forehead. "He will experience sacrifice and transformation." Crash went the tambourine.
"He will be ruled by the water," Sarah whispered. "Drowned in the water. Reborn in the water..." Crash went the tambourine.
"Stop," Naomi moaned. She couldn't keep her eyes open, and the disjointed world around her had the quality of a nightmare, a fever dream, a bad trip. "Please, stop..."
She opened her eyes and saw the card representing The Hanged Man. A twitch of fingers and the card disappeared, vanished into thin air. Faces crowded around her, faces she didn't recognize. They were strangers, wizards, magicians. Midwives and witches. Actors and jugglers, mystics and clowns. Strange and somber faces, gazing down upon the serious mojo of her child.
Blair, of course, hadn't believed a word of it. Oh, not that he didn't respect the Tarot, and he'd grown up around enough wizards, midwives, and clowns that they were as common as construction workers, firemen, and police officers were in the lives of other kids. Cause these were the people in his neighborhood. They're the people that you meet, when you're walking down the street...
But Blair also knew his mother, and he knew that if there hadn't been a story foretelling the significance of his birth, Naomi would have invented one. Not that that was a problem, per se; in fact, Blair thought that was a pretty good working definition of culture: the stuff that nature doesn't give us, so we make it up ourselves. So Blair tended to regard the story of his birth — the field, the star, the Tarot reading, the awed presence of magicians from as far away as La Jolla and Oxnard — as a key piece of family mythology, and also as Naomi's internal justification for her particular brand of mothering. She made him wear charmed necklaces, anointed him with oils, and asked her friends to cast protective spells over him on a regular basis. Blair accepted this with the same relatively good grace that other kids displayed when their mothers urged them to make a wish as they blew out their birthday candles, and one for good luck. Smile for the picture, sweetie. It was all magic, Blair decided, and besides, he liked the smell of patchouli.
But that was before Richard Burton, before Sentinels, before Jim Ellison. That was before the myths had come alive, and the Sentinels had stepped out of the picture books, and the temples had risen up out of the maps and towered before him with their crooked stairs and mossy stone walls. That was before Incacha grabbed him with a bloodstained hand and whispered, in Jim's voice, He passes over the way of the shaman to you. This wasn't some crazy story of his mother's, or some cultural myth he'd read about. This was real, this was happening. This wasn't family ritual, this was real blood.
Suddenly the story of his birth didn't seem quite so ridiculous — the field, the star, the presence of the magi. He wanted to ask his mother to tell him the story again, but he thought she might be suspicious or freak out. So he turned to books, as usual. The Hanged Man was number 12 in the Major Arcana, ruled by Neptune, strongly associated with water. Not the most popular card in the Tarot, and for understandable reasons — The Hanged Man symbolized sacrifice and helplessness, frustration, delay, endless waiting. A state of suspension, literal and figurative. There were also a lot of associations with mystical knowledge.
Not so much a divine teacher, Blair concluded wryly as he slammed the book shut, as a divine graduate student. Hanged Man sounded a lot like a guy who was A.B.D.
And so Blair waited for "The Way of The Shaman" to reveal itself, feeling a little like an idiot and a whole lot relieved when nothing happened. It was one thing for Jim to be a Sentinel: that was a genetic advantage, and it had a biological and physiological explanation. But shamanism was something else entirely — and nobody'd ever gotten "The Way of The Shaman" passed to them by physical contact, like it was the flu or something.
As time passed and no "Way" revealed itself ("Hey, no Way!" as Blair would sometimes mutter, and then giggle, usually when he was drunk), Blair convinced himself that the whole thing was a lot less mystical than it seemed. Forget his birth myth and The Hanged Man. Incacha had grabbed his arm and exhorted him, with his dying breath, to stand by Jim, to help and advise him — because what else was a Shaman, anyway? In that sense, Blair had been preparing to be Jim's Shaman all his life, studying what he needed to study: biology, genetics, languages, rituals, myth. It just so happened (it didn't just happen, his mind whispered, it was prophesied. You've been waiting, Hanged Man; now be patient) that his particular intellectual interests made him an ideal companion for a man with Jim's particular sensory difficulties.
Nothing mystical about it.
Except he had been wrong, wrong, wrong, really wrong; wrong on so many counts it was nearly impossible to keep count. Because this wasn't science, after all — it was magic. And he was part of the magic; the magic touched him. He was implicated. The myths had come alive, the Sentinels had stepped out of the picture books, and earlier that day Blair had seen his dreams come to life in art — in painting after painting of stone temples and black jaguars and the great, mystical eye of God.
Blair stood slowly, hands raised, and stared into the muzzle of the gun.
"I can't leave you alive," Alex Barnes said softly, almost sadly, and jerked the gun toward the door. Swallowing hard, Blair moved as she directed him, down the hallway, through the inside door, down the marble steps, to the outside door. She marched him straight across the Hargrove lawn, toward the copse of trees on the far side of campus. Blair glanced to his right and saw the parking lot, his car — he could run for it! — except she was right behind him and man, that was a mighty big gun. He didn't much relish being shot in the back, and besides, he was the Hanged Man — and on his own turf, grad school.
And the Hanged Man, in the Tarot, was always smiling.
So Blair stopped and turned around, hands still raised, and smiled at her. Alex's eyes narrowed. "What are you doing? I didn't say stop."
"I know," Blair said. "But I'm stopping." The main lesson of the Hanged Man is that we win by surrendering. "In fact, I give up."
"I said, keep going," Alex growled.
Blair felt his smile widening. "You know," he began, "I'm kind of in a state of suspension. I've been doing the graduate school thing for a while now, walking on the A.B.D. treadmill — "
Alex's face contorted in rage. "Move."
" — and I think maybe I've got completion issues or something." It felt good to say it out loud finally. "I mean, why haven't I finished writing my dissertation?" he asked her. "You'd think I'd be dying to move on to the next thing — "
"You'll move on," she growled. "You'll move now!"
" — except I'm not. I'm not at all psyched to move. Probably because of Jim," Blair said thoughtfully, "but you saw Jim, you can connect those dots for yourself. Jim's the man. Jim's my main man — "
Alex lifted the gun. Blair's voice caught in his throat for a moment, but he managed to keep himself together and talking. Naomi's baby boy could always talk.
" — and so I guess I'd rather go around in circles with him than move on alone." Blair lifted his chin and looked at Alex defiantly, unmovingly. You have reached The Hanged Man. Please hold. "I'm like — stuck," and he could see that she was barely containing her fury at his disobedience. "Yeah," Blair breathed, helplessly tensing for the shot, "stuck is the word — "
She fired, and Blair instinctively cringed and ducked, and shit! the shot was so loud. His heart was pounding so furiously that for a moment he wasn't sure what had happened — was he hit? He didn't think so, but he couldn't — quite —
Another blast, another shot, and he actually felt this one whizz past his ear. He nearly dropped to the ground, except that would make him a hell of a target — she could just stand over him and fire downwards, and so he turned to run —
Except she was there, on him, fighting him, and he struggled with her and felt a sudden crack of pain as something smashed into his skull. The gun, he thought. She was pistol-whipping him with the —
The world reeled drunkenly as they staggered together, as he tried to fight her off. She got another good blow in, a tooth-rattling backhander that sent him flying out of her arms and stumbling backwards. He fell down hard against the edge of the Hargrove Fountain, hard enough that he thought he cracked a rib. He was having trouble finding his center of gravity; it was like she'd broken a bone in his inner ear, and now he had a sort of arm-flailing vertigo. He was tugged up by the fabric of his blue shirt, and he felt another burst of pain in his head — so bright that he blacked out for a moment.
He came to, suddenly, in the water, which was cold and foul-smelling. Hands were grasping his shirt, hands were twined deep in his hair, holding him down. His head was exploding.
And then something in him calmed, and he opened his eyes and saw his hair floating around him in the water. The world was suffused with bright blue light, and above him, on the other side of the fountain's mirrored surface, he could see Alex looming like a shark.
He felt strangely at home, and oddly reassured, even though he could hear his own heart-beat slowing down. He would drown, but he would be reborn: this, finally, was the Way of The Shaman. Jim would pull him out of the water and kiss his cold, cold lips —
Blair smiled as his heart stopped.
When the jaguar smashed into him, the white light was brighter than any star he'd ever seen.