For years I wandered, mad. I saw many things that were real but not true, and a few true things that were not real. My life before my madness came and went, in no particular order, flashes of memory that were more present to me than the lands in which I walked. One moment, I would be running through a bramble, heedless of the thorns, and the next I was a youth on the mountain, dressed as a maiden.
Once a drop of rain took a year to fall. Once winter passed in a day, to be followed by autumn, and then spring. Time had abandoned me to my own devices, distance was only a sometimes companion. My path was marked with rent flesh and spilled wine. Now torn asunder and eaten, now sitting at Silenus’ hooves for lessons, now dancing among bloodied folk with whom I shared my madness, now born in fiery glory.
But then, then, then… The sound of drums. Distant rhythms that were the only constant in my wandering. Of all that I perceived, only the drums were regular, reliable, both real and true.
Of course I followed the sound. It was the only thread I could find.
Over sea and along strand I followed. I could not tell if I pulled on the thread, of if it pulled me. Thoom-thoom, thoom-thoom, my heart had been torn from my chest (again? still?) and I grasped desperately at the single vein that still tied me to it. I was drowning, as I had forgotten to become a fish, and then I was looking into my mother’s eyes as she died in ecstacy, and then I was at the mountain’s foot.
Blood covered my hands from the vein I held. Blood covered my hands, but there was no vein, no thread, just the pounding drums. I ran with nymphs in the sun; I ran up a steep path in the night, lit by torches held aloft by unmanned priests.
The drums, the drums, always up and ahead of me as I ran through the sky until the mountain fell up beneath my feet. Ahead of me was the red, red mouth of a devouring titan, and I ran all the faster, laughter spilling from my lips and tears spilling from my eyes.
The red mouth became a cave entrance, a fire lit deep inside. The drums were deafening, my heart pounding in time as I crossed the threshold. The fire burned far away, down a tunnel. Between me and the light, two men stood. One held a bowl of the darkest wine with the sweetest scent, offering it to me. I moved to take it when the other pushed me back, shouting, “No,” while striking the bowl from his fellow’s hands.
I slew them both. Blood on my hands. What mortal may deny a god? The vein in my hand throbbed again, dragging me deeper underground.
Away down the tunnel I met two more men. One offered me a bowl of clean water, and I took it and drank. The other stepped forward, and whispered my name in my ear. It was a word I had heard often in the years of my madness, but it was only now that I knew that word to be me.
I began to remember what I had done on my wanderings, and I could not bear to think on it. I was not allowed to forget again. The drums boomed in the narrow of the cave. Each beat was a syllable of my name. Each beat was a memory restored to its proper place in sequence.
I stumbled deeper under the world, closer to the heat and the flames. I could not see through the tears, through the flood of recollection. I spun about as I crashed against the closing walls of a tunnel becoming a fissure. Still the drums dragged me on by a hook set in my heart.
I knew myself in that close, hot squeeze. I cried my name with ragged throat, blood splattering all around as hands and feet slapped sharp rocks. I knew all I had been, all I had done, all that had been done to me. All the blood shed, because my father’s wife could bear no threat to the birthright of her children. All the pain that fell to the small, because the great could not be punished for their misdeeds.
Crawling now, through a tunnel barely large enough to admit me, I found the fire. It was bright and hot and dry. I could hear my mother screaming. The only way out was through the flames, and they burned.
The rags I wore burned away. The blood staining my skin burned away. Hair, matted and tangled with twigs and bones, burned away. Everything burned away, everything but me, everything but that one summoned by the voices of the drums.
The air and the flat stone floor were cold after that. My skin was clean and smooth, moon-pale and whole. Hair grew from my scalp, and vines grew from my hair. I was alive, I was whole, and I was me.
I danced for the joy of it, then, stomping and spinning to the drums, moving in a spiral around the fire. Someone thrust a fennel stalk in my hand as I passed them. Someone else threw a leopard skin across my shoulders.
Wine beaded on my skin, sweet alcoholic sweat flying from me as I spun around the fire. People caught it in bowls, and drank, and joined the dance behind me. I cried out in the pure love of rampant life, and the mountain shook for the joy of it.
One by one, the other dancers fell to drunkenness and exhaustion. I danced on, alone, as the fire burned down and the cave caught the light of dawn. Then the drums stopped, abruptly, and I fell as though my strings had been cut.
As the sun rose and the red light filled the cave, I saw Her. Mother of Gods, the Great Mother of the Earth, she who had nursed me as a babe. Breathless, I knelt before her, and gazed in to eyes aflame.
She held out a cup to me, and I drank, and the mysteries flowed into me. The madness given me by my step-mother could never be taken away, as it was placed by command of one of the undying gods. But my father’s mother had given me back to myself, and made me greater, large enough to hold the madness within, wise enough to use it for good or for ill, as was right for each time and place.
We sat together, grandmother and I, and she sang to me songs to heal flesh and spirit, and she taught me the rhythms and dances to purge the flesh of poison and illness.
What was given to me, I can give to you. Hold out your cup, and let me fill it. My wine flows unending.