Death of the Druid

Written By Meg Elison

Meg Elison is a Philip K. Dick and Locus award winning author, as well as a Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Otherwise awards finalist. A prolific short story writer and essayist, Elison has been published in Slate, McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fangoria, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley.

Niagara Falls is still a perfect place to commune with nature. Yes, it’s kitschy. Yes, everything smells wet. Yes, it’s overrun with tourists (I was there during a national cheer competition and we were swarmed by tiny, over-caffeinated girls with big hair.) But the communion is still powerfully present in the roar and the rush. At dawn, bats erupt out of the caves in the rock. At dusk, they return as the cold spray rises from all directions.

I was taking all this in from a room with a view and a luxurious jetted bathtub when my ex-husband called me to tell me his father had died.

The relationship with in-laws is an odd one. As a person who has striven all her life to have nothing in common with my own parents, I am always wary about meeting the parents of a partner. Most of the time, one immediately notices what the partner got from each of them, what it’s likely to become. It’s useful information, but it’s not always good news.

John had prepared me to meet his family: his mother loved him and his father was ashamed of him. The whole family was LDS; John was not. He was absolutely the black sheep and he was announcing his intention to marry a pagan who was still legally married to her first husband. I thought it was going to be bad, but it was so much worse.

John’s father was a short geriatric bodybuilder who was not only ashamed of his son, but also his father, his body, and nearly everything he had ever done outside of his three beautiful daughters. The first time I met the man who would become my father-in-law, I knew three things.

  1. Blake did not like me.
  2. Blake did not like himself.
  3. Blake did not want anyone to really know him.

The second and third I could do nothing about. The first was something I could scarcely abide, so I tried. I figured out what books we had both read and attempted to engage him, but I chose fantasy titles that he was ashamed of having liked. I listened to his and his father’s stories, cultivating enjoyment of their farm-town folksiness and learning to set them up for their transitions in the inevitable retellings. But my enjoyment was never believed as genuine, I thought because of our cultural differences but now I believe was just that same shame. I picked up through painful revelation that Blake was ashamed possibly most of all, of having married a fat woman. As a fat woman, I represented something he hated in himself; something he was ashamed of having passed on to his only son.

The son, too, was a constant source of shame. John was queer and tattooed and effeminate, despite years of fatherly cruelty and martial arts training. John was an underachiever with brilliant test scores and disappointing grades. John returned from a two-year mission in South America to confess he had lost his faith and could no longer be part of the institution that governed his family’s every milestone, every cornerstone, every headstone.

Perhaps most shameful of all, John was sick. With a host of childhood illnesses, John alienated his father by producing the most shameful condition: weakness. Blake couldn’t abide weakness in any man, no matter how sick or how disadvantaged that man was.

No surprise then that he met his own sickness with a stubborn refusal to seek help or submit to care. When John called me to tell me his father had died, I wanted to be supportive. I wanted to ask my former partner in life whether he was ok, whether he needed anything. I did not say “of course he fucking died of something preventable since he thought it was a sin to show someone where it hurt.” The truth about the dead is often uncomfortable.

I never really got over Blake disliking me, and our differences only deepened. I was open in disdain for the LDS funding of anti-LGBTQ legislation, and I was happy to speak my mind if asked. I not only resisted ill-planned attempts to convert me after I was married, but answered them with points too well-researched to argue with.

There was only one thing we ever got along about, and the paradox never failed to delight me: my father-in-law, devout lifelong Mormon and only three degrees of separation from Brigham Young, was kind of a pagan, himself.

Blake had an office in his empty nest, and he hung there a plaque that read “harm none.” This is recognizable to those in the know as the short form of a phrase known as the Wiccan rede: “an it harm none, do as you will.” Beside that there hung a broom, and always, always an edifice of some goddess or another. John told me his father was a fierce believer in the female godhead, obliquely referred to in the LDS “deep doctrine” and analogous to the Jewish mystical concept/goddess Sophia.

In between open dislike and cordial silence, I shared with my father-in-law a series of beautiful pagan moments. He wanted to have ritual for the spring solstice so we did, out on the tender grass with freshly-planted saplings, a bowl of pink rose petals beneath our cakes and apple juice (never wine, he did not stray so far.) He sent one of his daughters to me on the full moon, asking for my blessing for her imperiled pregnancy (she was spotting; it was only comfort) and wept when I gave it. He nailed up a green man that looked like his own face: merry and bearded and veiled by some secret we could never guess.

Blake took me once to his secret place, his place of power. In the mountains above the desert where we lived, it was a green valley with a huge living California oak. Golden slashes of sunlight came down through the leaves, painting the day with a virile beauty. He talked to me a little there, opened up to me as much as he ever would about his relationship with his own father, about what he had wanted for his girls.

I think I saw the real him, just that once. I think I was outsider enough to him and his family that he felt safe. For just a moment, he set aside his mask of eternal shame and I saw the druid, the man he might have been. I loved him as well as I could, mostly in that secret face that he could show me only when I brought him into the circle, told him there was no part of him that was not of the gods.

While he spoke on that enchanted afternoon, I wove a garland of wild ivy and volcanic gilia into the shape of a crown and left it as an offering in that tree. I remember how he smiled at it, how he suddenly looked like a little boy, hoping to be loved.

When the druid died, I knew I wouldn’t find him in any church. I’m divorced now; I wasn’t invited to a funeral service. I didn’t really know him, because he never wanted me to. But when I let go of the druid I knew, it was with a wreath of wild grasses and daffodils I picked and wove and tossed into Niagara Falls.