The story so far. In the ancient land beside the river, the God-King lies in what appears to be death. No one can awaken him. In the house of a court Magician, the peasant girl Ubastet is dusting and conversing with a magical stork when two minor miracles occur. The Magician consults the Hierophant, but they cannot explain the miracles. Now the Queen has come into the room. She is determined to figure out what’s going on. (Where do they fly to? Romania, another land of great enchantment.)
Before the sun set that day, the Queen of the golden land called a convention of priests and wizards and magicians and astrologers and seers and prophets and physicians. When they had all assembled in the throne room, she set the matter before them. Day after day, the learned ones debated, night after night, they performed their high magics and gorgeous rituals. In their secret places, the animals gathered together as well and performed their own rituals. But the mirror, whose thousand pieces had been gathered up and cleansed and set back into the frame in a sublime mosaic, the mirror refused to speak again. The golden beetle remained cold and silent.
Ubastet was sent back to her dusting. As she worked, trying not to touch anything she dusted, one day she came upon a small, ordinary, brown beetle crouching beside a jeweled bottle shaped like a tree. “I have heard of a flower,” this beetled muttered, as if speaking to itself. “It grows in a bog in a land to the north across the wine-dark sea. I have heard that it restores the dead, or the seeming dead, to life. I have heard….”
“Oh,” said Ubastet, as if speaking to herself as she dusted a tiny crystal pyramid on the other end of the bench, “that’s certainly good to know. But what good does it do to tell a housemaid about such a miraculous flower?”
“Tell your friend the stork.” And the little brown beetle crawled to the end of the bench and flew away.
The stork told the jackal, who told the lioness, who told the ibis, who told the Magician, who told the Hierophant, who told the Queen.
“My brother-husband has been enchanted for twenty-seven days,” the Queen said. “I am willing to do anything to restore him.”
And so it was decided that the Queen would put on a magical swan’s skin and fly to the northern land to find the bog. As soon as she located the miraculous flower, she would shed her swan’s skin and pick the flower. Then she would put the swan’s skin back on and carry the flower in her beak to her brother-husband. A black falcon and a red hawk volunteered to go with her, and because no one knew the way to this fabled bog, word was sent out for a guide.
“I can guide you,” said the stork. “I migrate to that land with my clan every spring. Surely I can find the bog you seek.”
The next day, as the sun was rising, the Queen put on the magical swan’s skin and set off to the north. First she and the hawk and the falcon followed the stork north along the sacred river that flowed through the center of their land to the great seaport with its famous lighthouse. From the lighthouse, they flew for three days across the wine-dark sea to the bleak and stony land on its northern shore, where they rested on windy ledge for two days. They flew for three more days across the barren northern lands, they flew past a golden city, they flew across a smaller, darker sea. Finally they came to mouth of a wide blue river, where they rested again. They followed that winding river, whose waters grew brown with mud, all the way north and west to its source. At last they came to the bog they were seeking. The stork flew ahead to see what he could see.
They couldn’t know it, but a fierce barbarian tribe had recently arrived in the poor land around the bog, and the men of this wild tribe were hunting in the bog. As soon as the Queen and her company arrived near the center of the bog, they settled on a great tree on a tiny island. The Queen took off her swan’s skin. She and the falcon and the hawk, who had assumed human form now (except for their heads), were just constructing a small raft that she could ride to reach the very center of the bog when the hunters came upon them. The hunters whooped and hollered and shot the falcon and the hawk. Though their arrows refused to touch the Queen, the hunters stole the swan’s skin from her and left her alone in the bog, kneeling on a half-completed raft.
The Queen refused to weep. Instead, she uttered some magical words she knew. She stood up. She faced the sun and spoke another magical phrase. Suddenly there was a roaring in the water before her that made her raft rise into the air. There was a heaving of the swampy land, a cold wind began to blow, and the massive trees growing in the bog began to shake. The Queen stood steadily and held her hands in a certain position and spoke a magical formula.
“Who dares invade my domain?” roared a deep voice as a huge head began to rise up from the muddy water. As the Queen watched, a figure that seemed to be a mountain of logs and sticks and grasses and mud came to stand before her. “I am the Bog King. Who are you to disturb me?”
She nodded to the Bog King. “I am Queen of a southern land. I have come here on an errand of mercy. I have learned of a miraculous flower that grows here. Its magical powers may return life to my brother-husband.
The Bog King rose higher. He grew so tall, the Queen looked like a child beside him. “I have been waiting for you,” he said in a slightly kinder voice. “My kingdom holds more magic than anyone knows.” He leaned down and held out one enormous hand. “Come with me.”
The Bog King stepped forward and took hold of the tiny raft, but he was so big, he upset it and the Queen fell into the muddy water. There was a great wave, and when she rose into the air, he caught her in his long, muddy arms. Then he pulled her under the water. Within minutes every sign of the Bog King and the Queen disappeared and soon there were no longer even any bubbles to show where the Queen had disappeared.
The stork had been watching from a distant tree, but when he flew closer, he was forced to go up into the clouds to evade the hunters’ arrows. For this reason, he thought he had witnessed an abduction. Though he searched and searched, he found nothing. Even the tiny island had disappeared under huge muddy waves. The Queen was gone. At last, broken-hearted, he flew back to the southern land and reported his failure to the other animals, who sent word to the high priest, who spoke privately with the Hierophant.
The God-King lay enchanted and apparently lifeless. The Queen had been captured and was no doubt dead. The barbarian tribes would, the Hierophant was sure, never release her. In fact, he was sure they would eventually gallop south and try to conquer the golden land.
“Now,” said the Hierophant, “now I’m the one in charge of this rich land.” The first thing he did was declare a year of mourning. The second thing he was reorganize the court, the temples, and the colleges of priests and priestesses. In the name of civil defense, he assumed control of the army. He also took charge of the treasuries and the marketplaces and the graveyards.
A year and a day went by. The stork returned to the bog. “I cannot give up,” he said to whoever might be listening, “for I feel somehow responsible for what has happened.” He flew back and forth and back and forth over the muddy waters of the bog and the bits of swampy land around it.
And then he saw something he had never seen before. In the mud and muck a new flower was growing. It had wide, flat leaves, a long thick stem, and a lavender-blue bud. Just as the stork landed in the water, which was nearly as deep as his legs were long, the floating bud began to open. Its center was as bright and golden as the sun itself, and lying among the petals was a miniature baby girl.
“Why,” said the stork, “this is a true miracle. And,” he added, “since I am believed to deliver babies, I might as well take this baby to a safe place.” He gently picked up the miniature girl in his long beak and looked around for something to wrap her in. To his surprise, he found the tattered remnants of the magical swan’s skin lying on a rotten log, along with a torn length of plaid cloth.
“Though you brought bad luck to our Queen,” the stork said to the swan’s skin, “I shall trust you now to be more merciful to this helpless babe.” He wrapped the miniature girl in the swan’s skin, then made a sling out of plaid cloth to carry her in. For good measure, he also plucked the flower out of the water and laid it in the sling beside the baby. Then, flapping his strong wings, he rose into the air.
As he flew out of the bog and down the river, he heard a horrendous roaring below, and piteous crying, too. “But,” the stork said to the baby, “I have a task to carry out. I cannot stop to investigate.” Without resting, he followed his migratory path down the river, over the small sea, past the golden city, over the barren lands, across the wine-dark sea, and down the holy river until he arrived back home.
The animals were astonished to see that the bundle he was carrying in his beak. “Just let me unwrap it,” said the stork. ‘You’ll see what I’ve brought.”
“It’s a flower,” said the hippopotamus.
“And,” said the cat, “a baby girl.”
“It’s a baby girl who looks like our late Queen,” said the jackal.
“Quick!” said the crocodile, “hide her! While you’ve been flying north and south, the Hierophant has taken control of the country. He’s a tyrant. He must not see this baby.”
“But she needs a nurse,” said the lioness, gently grooming the baby’s black hair. “Who do we know to help us? Everyone’s afraid of the Hierophant and his army and his spies.”
The animals all looked from one to another, shaking their heads. At last the stork spoke up. “I think I know one who might help us.”
And so they hid the baby girl in a canopic jar and that very night secretly brought Ubastet to the cave they were hiding in. “Yes,” the girl said, “yes, of course I’ll do what I can. Cow, will you feed her? Baboon, can you find clean linens to wrap her in? Cat, can you keep her clean? Ibis, will you write a charm to name and protect her?”
They named the baby Aset, after the former Queen, and raised her, moving her from secret cave to secret cave, from farm to desert and back again, for twelve years. Aset grew quickly and learned every lesson the animals could teach her. Before long, it seemed to them that she also knew many things they had not taught her.
At dawn on Aset’s thirteenth birthday, all the animals came to her, as they did every year, with the greetings of the day. As she did every year, she asked the stork to repeat the story of her discovery in the bog. At the end of the story, she held up the flower from the bog, which had remained in bloom during all this time.
“It seems to me,” she said, “that the time has come for me to take action. The old God-King still lies upon his bier, alive but dead, and our golden land has for too long been ruled by a tyrant. Today I shall go forth.”
Aset put on her whitest linen robe, her wide beaded necklace, and her silver sandals, and then she walked through the city to the great temple. Muttering to themselves about foolhardiness and looking for places in which to seek sanctuary in case the soldiers of the Hierophant should attack, the animals followed her. But no one attacked them. It was if as no one even saw their little procession.
Though she had never been in the temple or the palace, Aset walked right in. As if she knew exactly where she was going, she walked into the room where the God-King lay upon his bier, alive and dead at the same time. As if she knew exactly what to do, Aset walked up to the God-King and laid the flower over his heart. She leaned over him, whispered certain words in his left ear, and made a certain gesture above his forehead, even though she had never learned those words or that gesture from anyone living. She whispered other words in his right ear and made another gesture above his groin that no one living had ever taught her. Next, she took the God-King’s hands into hers and recited a formula no one had even known. Laying his hands on his stomach, fingers touching, she walked around the bier three times, chanting words no one had ever heard before. And finally, she knelt at the foot of the bier and said in loud tones, “Arise, my love. The sun shines in the sky. Arise. Love breeds life, and here I am. The highest form of love breeds the highest form of life, and here I am, and here you must be, too.”
Then she sat back on her heels, closed her eyes, and waited. The animals, where were all standing around the perimeter of the room, waited, too, but they kept their eyes open.
And the God-King took a deep breath. He opened his eyes. He sat up. “My beloved one,” he murmured, “what took you so long?” They smiled at each other. “I have been waiting for your return,” he said to her. “All these many years I have been journeying in the netherworld, and now you have called me forth.”
“My love,” Aset replied, “my greening love, arise and walk with me. All is well, and all things shall be well.”
The God-King of the great southern land stood up and soon he took his rightful place on his throne beside his sister-wife, for, yes, it was the Queen who had been reborn after her schooling by the bog king. Within days, they arrested the Hierophant, tried him on charges of greed, sorcery, and tyranny, and executed him. Thus did the people of the golden land regain their freedom. In good time, when the princess was born, Ubastet was called to the palace to be her nursemaid.
And the animals? They were rewarded, too. They were all given their own rites of worship and their own temples, which travelers may see to this very day when they visit that great and holy land.
The End. Or a Beginning.
Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic. Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations. When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.