The tree towered above her. She looked up into the branches and could hear the Crows chattering among themselves. I always start here, she thought.
“Of course you start here,” said a deep rumbling voice behind her. Liz turned around to see a large, red-headed, bearded man with a big pot belly leaning casually on a staff. “Where else would you start, darlin’ but at the Tree of Life?”
Liz sighed. “I suppose you’re right. It’s where I first met you, after all. It’s where I met all of you, really.”
“You sound like you’re at a funeral! Why are you so sad?” the Dagda asked.
Liz scoffed. “Sad? Oh no! Not sad. I’m resigned to You and all of Your interference in my life! First time you sent me students, half of them left and half of them died in the City-State Wars. The next time you sent me a student, it got… complicated, and they left. After that I said I wanted no more students, and now you bring me these two?!” She threw up her hands. “I’ve just resigned myself to being broken hearted and alone! What’ll it be with these two, huh? Is the city-state going to come and take them in the night?” Liz stood directly in front of the large God and said, pointing to herself, “I can’t fight them on my own! I’m an old woman with a bad back and bad knees! I don’t even know if I can keep them out of sight long enough for… I don’t know what for! If You’ve got some grand plan in that God-head of Yours about all this, could you maybe clue me in this time? I don’t know if I can deal with vague prophecies and riddles right now!”
The Dagda looked down at her with His kind eyes and smiled, making her feel as if she was resting under a tree on a warm Summer’s day. “You know that’s not how it works, lass,” He said. “You are, however, at the right place at the right time. And you will be able to protect both of them. You are stronger than you think you are, even as an old woman.”
“No I’m not! I’m old and decrepit and not worth–”
The Dagda put a finger to her lips. “Do not say you aren’t worthy or worth Our time.” His voice was calm, but the hair on the back of her neck stood up. This time his eyes were still as water on a Winter’s day. Liz flinched at the rebuke and nodded. “Better,” He said, and His eyes changed to sun dancing on water and He removed His hand. She breathed a sigh of relief.
“Now, learn from your alien friend, and teach the young girl. Your time is short, but you will have the time you need.” He smiled, then walked away over the plains into a forest in the northwest that hadn’t been there earlier. Of course He’d go His own way, Liz thought, shaking her head.
A chuckle came from behind her. She turned, and Papa Legba was smiling under His black, wide-brimmed hat, holding His cane in front of Him. “I opened the way for them on our world. They’re very confused Spirits, but you’ll be able to handle it.”
“Opened the way for who?”
Papa grinned, then disappeared in a puff of cigar smoke. “Fucking hell!” Liz exclaimed. “Deities!”
Yet another person laughed behind her. “You really don’t like being out of control, do you?”
Before she could turn to see who had spoken, a man was before her, dressed in a tunic and cloak, holding a staff with two intertwined snakes. He shifted between looking like a middle-aged man and a young man and had a warm, amused smile. Liz was getting annoyed with all the supernatural attention, and a part of her wished that Noise-Maker had crashed in someone else’s field. The god laughed again. “You really have been set in your ways for a very long time! Have no worries, agapiti, things are going to change. You’ll need to just flow with it. Besides, you have Me! Now, stand still.”
“What?” Liz said again, as He touched her head with His staff. The world exploded in shapes and numbers, none of which she could understand. The world disappeared from under her and suddenly she was falling…
“Fuck!” I breathed as I spread out my arms and legs on the bed trying go catch myself, even though I knew it was useless. My eyes popped open and I was breathing hard. “Son of a bitch! I hate falling dreams!” I stayed still for a moment, reassuring my body that I was just in my bed and I didn’t fall from the sky or something. I counted my breaths for a minute or two to calm myself, as I listened to the the low murmur of conversation outside my bedroom door. That’s what you get for praying before a nap, Liz, I thought to myself. But what did that dream mean? And just what did Hermes put in my head?
It wasn’t completely dark yet, but I could tell that it was close to twilight. I got up, went into the bathroom, splashed my face with cold water, then took a long look at myself in the mirror. The lines around my face were deeper and my short hair was now fully dark gray. “You’re way too old for this shit,” I said to my reflection.
Laughter rang in my head, and my image changed in the mirror to a much older and wrinkled woman. The light around Her face darkened like a cloak. I was frozen in place as She thundered in my head, Think you too old to act, child? Think you too old to influence a young child and a being who needs your help? I am as old as the Earth and older and yet I can still act. You are far from useless. You have intelligence and you have wisdom. You have power and you have US. Act, Daughter! There is no room for doubt! Just as suddenly as Hecate appeared, she left my mind and vision, making me stumble backwards enough that I had to catch myself with the edge of the sink.
“Fuck!” I whispered. It’d been a long time since a Spirit had scolded me like that. I took more deep breaths to steady myself. “Damn.” I was shocked, but my heart knew She was right. Katy and Noise-Maker had come to me. I had made vows and I had a brain in my head. Had I become so much of a hermit that I’d forgotten who I really was? I shook my head to clear it. “You’re a witch, Liz. It’s time you used your knowledge to figure things out!” I said out loud, hoping that I could actually believe it. I pretended to, at least. I washed my face again, took another breath, then went out to the living room.
Katy was sitting on the couch near Noise-Maker. She looked thoughtful for a moment, then said something to Noise-Maker, making a distinct clicking sound at the end. Noise-Maker hiss-laughed, then said through the translator, “Yes, better this time. Acceptable!”
Katy smiled wide and clapped her hands. “Yes! I did it! Liz! I figured out how to say Noise-Maker’s name!”
“You did?” I said, surprised. “That’s amazing!”
“It is the diminutive form of my name, but Katy’s attempt was as accurate as a human can make it,” they clarified. “It is acceptable enough to be respectful.”
Katy beamed, which looked cute and ridiculous with her head still wrapped in tinfoil. I grinned and said, “I’m really impressed!”
“Thanks!” she replied. “So, uh, Liz, can I wash this stuff off now? It really stinks!”
I nodded. “Sure. Use the hose on the rainwater tank outside to rinse the solids off, then you should take a shower to get the last of it out.” Katy jumped off the couch and ran for the back door. “Put the foil in the recycling!” I yelled after her.
“Ok!” she yelled back. I stood, staring at the door, thinking.
Noise-Maker made a quiet clicking sound. “You are worried?”
I nodded. “Yes. The ritual we’re going to do later is no guarantee of safety, Noise-Maker. I can do some magick to protect us for a while, but I can’t keep the world out forever. We’ll need to figure out some way to contact your people.”
They were quiet for a long moment, then said, “I understand, Elizabeth. I, too, wish to contact my people. I have technical expertise, but all the tools I could use were on the ship that was taken. I did not think to bring tools when I escaped the ship.”
I turned to them. They had lowered their upper limbs and bowed their head. It was then that I really got a good look at what I thought of as their hands and realized that there would be no way they could manipulate human tools. The ends of their limbs had three short appendages that would let them grab things, but in reality, the appendages were closer to thin, flexible lobster claws than fingers.
“How did you create your ships?” I asked.
“Initially, when we created electronics and computers, we had created tools to do delicate work that would fit in our appendages. Later, we developed robotics and artificial intelligence to create them for us. The intelligence, especially, allowed us to make materials and components we couldn’t make with our own hands, such as our ships. It is why we created the translator and incorporated it into our suits and other equipment. We can design in our minds, store that data in our minds, then through the translators we create, since our language is based in mathematics.”
My eyes went wide. “Hold on, you mean that little machine can do more than just translate for you?”
I smiled. “So, if I tell you what I’d be able to find as far as components, then you could come up with a design for an antenna or something?”
“It might be possible,” they said. “I don’t know how I would work on the components, however.” They held up their limbs.
“I know a bit about electronics. I’m no expert, but I’m handy with things like radios and antennas. I could be your hands. We’ll talk more about it tomorrow. Tonight we should focus on the protection ritual.”
“Yes.” Noise-Maker stared at me in a way that meant they were wanting to ask a question.
“Out with it, Noise-Maker,” I said.
“My [untranslatable]. They were on the ship. They are all dead, Elizabeth.” They put their claws together, seeming uncertain. “I am… alone.”
“Your family?” I went over to the couch and sat near Noise-Maker, putting a hand on their limb.
They waved in the affirmative. “Yes. That is a suitable word. Reproductive grouping.”
“Your mates? Partners? Are you sure they’re dead? Is it possible any of them could be alive? I’m not sure how we’d rescue them from the city-state, but…”
They waved a limb and tapped their head. “I know.”
“Oh,” I said, weakly. “I’m sorry.”
They waved in the negative, as if waving away my sympathy. “I have my memories, even though the bond has been severed. But it means that I am without children now.”
I felt my face pale. “You had children on your ship, too?”
“Yes. We send family groups on long term assignments.” They bowed their head again. “But I would ask you more about this ritual.”
“Oh. Yes. Of course.” I wanted to know more about what happened on the ship, but I wasn’t going pressure them to do so, since it seemed they were reluctant to talk about it.
“I would like to… adopt… Katy as my child. I do not like that her caretakers want to force her into premature mating. It is wrong. I would never do such a thing. I want to protect her. Is this something I can proclaim in this ritual?”
I blinked. “Well, yes. There’s nothing saying we can’t do that, too, as long as Katy agrees to it. Consent is important to most humans. The basics of the ritual, like casting a circle and calling in the Spirits, is usually just a wrapper for whatever you need to do.” Noise-Maker seemed to not understand, so I tried a different explanation. “Um, well, you see, we kind of build a temporary spiritual enclosure around us. The ritual to build that is generic. Like the walls of this house. The walls are like any other house in the town, but what we do inside, or how we decorate the inside, is different from house to house. So, in the ritual, we can have more than one purpose. Does that make sense?”
They were thoughtful for a long moment. “You create a circle?”
“Well, sort of. It’s more like a sphere, to be honest, since we mark out above and below, too.”
They raised their head in surprise. “You make spheres like the Navigators?”
They waved in the affirmative. “Yes! Navigators must create a sphere in their head of the Universe in order to do accurate drive calculations. I am not the expert Navigator that my partner was, but all of us learn how, in case of need. I will show you! The basics of it should be understandable to you.”
“Noise-Maker is going to show you how to do something?” Katy said, walking into the living room with bits of coffee grounds stuck in her now reddish-brown hair and the dirty towel around her shoulders.
“Apparently it’s like how I make a magick circle,” I replied. “Go take your shower, Katy, then we’ll make dinner.”
Katy pouted about being left out, but did as she was told.
Noise-Maker hiss-laughed. “It seems our children are not much different.”
“Yes.” They arranged their lower legs in loaf position, and pointed at a spot on the floor. “Visualize that this is center of our galaxy. It’s designated coordinates are 0,0,0 and is the center of the sphere that is the boundary of our own galactic understanding. Within this sphere are multitudes of smaller spheres: for navigation purposes, it is our ship, but planets, and even people, have their own spheres within the Universe. Visualize your own sphere as separate from the sphere of the galaxy…”
As Noise-Maker guided me through the Navigation mathematics, I could feel another part of my mind latch on to the imagery, give it human terms, and set my own magickal circle imagery within it. For once in my life, understanding came quickly. I knew, then, what Hermes had given me and I also knew that Hecate was right. I was not some useless old lady. I was a priest who could share her own wisdom and still learn new things. I had power.