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The Witch on the Roof

 A Lucid Dream at the Age of Four

The place is called Friendship, a small lobster-fishing village in Maine, habitation of nine hundred souls. The time was autumn, late September, hurricane season for the northeast coast of the United States.  My parents had just moved from a modest cottage by the seashore to a bigger house on the road into town. Due to the novelty of the new residence, many details of that period are vividly impressed on my mind. I remember finding the house large and a bit spooky. It was said that some unusual things had happened there. I pistol was left in an empty room. I took charge of it. It loaded oddly, breaking like a shotgun to take two shells. Even more oddly, there was heavy sword in the hallway, leaning in a corner. No one dared to touch it. No one knew why it was left there.

The large, two-story house was connected to an even larger  barn by two sheds with low roofs. You went from the kitchen through the sheds into the barn by an interior door, or through the huge barn doors at the front. To the left of these doors was a wild rose bush. It was at the end of its season when we arrived. I remember being struck by the delicate lilac color of the blowsy, uneven flower-heads, so heavy they toppled upside-down and hung from the branches until they dropped their petals in sodden clusters on the lawn. The heads were bloody red at the center, the color spreading as if from a puncture wound, with the petals turning to that pale lilac color I found so alluring. I would say it was a deep pale.

From the day we arrived, I noticed the rose bush and kept returning to it, kneeling on the grass in front of it, tilting me head one way and the other as I studied the flowers. Something about it frightened me, almost sending a chill up my spine. I found the color of the wild roses painfully beautiful, beyond anything else to be seen in this world.

Initially we all slept on the ground floor, the upper rooms of the house not yet being ready for use. I had a bedroom right off the hall. To get to it I sometimes passed the corner where the sword was standing. It was gold-plated and heavy, like some kind of theatrical prop rather than a real sword. It had a wide curving guard to protect the hand.

On the night of the dream a stiff wind was buffeting the house. It was Maine, and September used to be hurricane season in that days. I tucked into my bed and felt that exquisite sense of safety you have in a creaking house under the assault of the wind. I fell asleep and entered the lucid dream announced by the roar of the wind: its sound in the real world was reproduced in the dream that now occurred.

Modern rendering of Cailleach,
Celtic witch equivalent to Kali
in her hag epiphany

Asleep but lucid, I got out of bed, attracted by a loud knocking. In my pyjamas I went into the kitchen and then stepped out the front door onto the lawn. The sky was gray, as if it were twilight. The sound I heard was coming from above me. I looked up at the roof of the shed connecting the house to the barn. It was not very high, the peak being perhaps ten feet above the lawn. The sky over it was a grey turmoil of clouds, almost like a liquid display, a cold, shuddering emulsion. Against this turbulent background I immediately saw a figure standing on the roof, straddling the peak. It was an horrifically old, haggard woman dressed in what looked like a sack that had been shredded to tatters by a knife. The color of her body was grey and purple, with her veins and sinews markedly visible. Her hair was hard like like metal wire. She emanated physical strength like an Olympic athlete. She was a witch of some kind -- my mind registered that term, a definition that meant nothing but did serve to calm me in a certain way.

My heart was racing and I was glued to the spot, half crouching on the mown grass of the lawn. The wind whipped around me and ruffled the tatters of the witch's dress. She was poised, straddling the peak with a distinct air of purpose. As my mind put together what I was seeing, I noticed that she was in the posture of someone at bat in a baseball game. But instead of a bat, she held in her hands a sword like the one in the hallway. The point of the sword was down, resting on the shingles of the roof. It was silver rather than gold, and considerably thin and lithe -- as much like a whip as a sword, or more like a fencing sword, a rapier. I put these details together in a matter of seconds. There was little sense of sequence in what  saw, it just came together in jolts, each perception riveting me more instensely to the event taking place.

I wondered about the knocking sound, then I saw long elastic briar protruding from the roof. It was a branch of the wild rose bush, but just a single one, thick and stiff as a cable, lined with thorns, standing almost vertical. The wind caught it and snapped it against the shingles of the roof -- hence the knocking sound. Then it rebounded, thrashing like a bobbin against the stormy sky. At the end of the long briar was a massive flower-head, blood-red at the core with the pale lilac aura. The briar tossed wildly under the impact of the wind and the blossom smashed on the shingled roof oddly producing the sound of a wooden knocker.

My eyes slid to the face of the haggard woman, whom I had not dared to look at too closely so far. Her head was tilted to the side, a gesture that told me that she was looking at me, intently and sternly. Her hair was an unruly nest of fine strands like threads of iron. Her eyes were absolutely fixed and cold, also grey, gleaming sharply with a preternatural light. For a moment, she held my gaze with a expression that struck terror into my heart. She recognized me. Then she moved her head deliberately, commanding me to watch what she was doing. She pulled back the silver rapier with both hands, swung, and delivered a ferocious whack, cutting the flower head off the long brair at the moment it thrashed upward on a violent gust of wind.

The severed head of the rose tumbled into the stormy sky.

I did not see the blossom fly into the air due to the blow she struck, because the gesture of severing it was so violent, so sudden and deliberate, that it frightened me more than anything so far. I gasped and instantly woke up. I was in my bed, a four-year-old child huddled under the covers, cold, stiff, and shaking all over.  

    * * * * * * * * *

In Christian appropriation, the mystic rose of alchemy is often associated or identified with the figure of the Madonna, exemplary of mercy and lovingkindness. Search "mystical rose" and you come up with countless renditions of the Virgin Mary. (One version by Salvatore Dali.) In this perspective, it will be difficult to appreciate the flagrant brutality of Kali Ma. Jung would elaborate on the "coincidence of opposites," a key principle of transpersonal psychology... What is inexplicable remains so... but I can say this much: In the extremity of ecstasy so intense that it feels like all-annihilating pain, what is normally perceived as brutal and ugly takes on a different look. It may be that the required dose of healing elixir for human degeneration in Kali Yuga can only be dispensed through this baffling epiphany of the Divine in brutality. It may also be that we have some outrageous things to learn that can only be learned through brutality in this timing, the close of Kali Yuga, the Age of Iron.

I do not mean in any sense to endorse brutality by physical violence against anyone who is not asking for it. Or emotional and verbal abuse where it is not required. But I refer to the brutal impact of truth, of honesty, of directness, and whatever it takes to reach a human being when tenderness, patience, love, and compassion prove to be futile and ineffectual—as happens more and more often, in my experience.

As for Kali Ma, her incomparable blow tempers the blood of her foundlings like fire tempers a sword. She prepares them to survive through a time of blind violence, but never disregards the value of vulnerability. On the contrary, her brutality may be the cutting edge of a sublime, almost unbearable tenderness.

jll : September 2010 Flanders


Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2018 by John L. Lash.