The Sword in the Stone
© Penelope Bourk
Maggie lay on the reiki table, the crushing pain in her chest easing beneath the quilt of warm fingers.
“How did I fall? Not looking where I was going!”
“No, Maggie. Why did you fall?” the reiki master repeated, her penetrating blue eyes suddenly serious.
Maggie pushed her wiry gray bangs away from her glasses and looked back at the soft buddha face.
“I don’t –“
The master’s hands slid like a ouija planchette to the lower ribs. Maggie moaned with relief. “What are you doing down there?
“Supporting you, Maggie. In case you’ve forgotten what support feels like! Pity you waited so long to call.”
Every breath hurt. A terrible heaviness had been growing in Maggie’s chest, and a vicious eggplant of a bruise continued to spread across her left breast though three weeks had passed since the fall.
“Your entire rib cage is locked up. The chest muscles have contracted, like a living cast, to promote healing. But when muscles tense too long, the cells forget how to relax.”
“Urgent Care said healing would just take time, but I’d no idea how long!” Maggie had treated herself with reiki every day, which cleared some energy, but a desperation at not healing had set in this third week.. Despair was often dangerous territory for Maggie, so this once, she had let her guard down and called the reiki circle. As luck would have it, the itinerant teacher-master from Texas, Jean Ferris, was in town.
“Mmmh,” the master’s lips compressed. “You’re a furnace under there. Getting help at home?”
“No, but …”
“But nothing. Why do you think I encourage reiki circles where I teach? So we can help each other. So that back at the ranch, Little Red Hens like you, who think they have to do every little thing themselves, can practice getting help for a change. Your husband’s level one trained in reiki. Where’s he at?”
Maggie coughed. “He’s having a bit of trouble with the idea of reiki.”
“Mmm. It’s hard for some, particularly men, to suspend their disbelief long enough to trust their healing hands. He’s some kind of scientist, right?”
“A research engineer.”
“Logic and reiki, minds apart, like vinegar and oil. Need a good shaking!”
Maggie felt warmth permeate through to her spine, as if surrounded by a bonfire.
“Gotta take that tiger to the mountain,” the master muttered under her breath.
“What?” Maggie asked.
“When will you get it, Maggie? In spite of all indications to the contrary, including your own stubborn belief, you are not alone on this planet! We are here for you. Back to the question, though. Herding cats is easier than keeping you on track today. Why did you fall?”
“I didn’t ask how, Maggie. I asked why.”
“Why? I tripped over a file drawer”
“Must have been some powerful files,” the master drawled. Lyiing out flat, her eyes closed now, Maggie listened, but at a distance, as if the reiki master's under-the-breath asides were written in little bubbles in the air, like cartoon commentary.
“Metal. We were moving furniture and I didn’t see the file drawer on the floor behind me. My ankle caught. I fell sideways and one side of my chest smashed down on the high sharp drawer front of the lowest drawer.”
“Mmm. I bet that hurt! Place your hands here, two fingers below your belly button. Direct your breath. Feel your energy there. What were you in the midst of when you fell? What might have thrown you off balance?”
Could have been – so many things, now that Maggie thought about it.
Being forced by circumstance into the sudden move, for instance -- leaving the “room of one’s own” she’d struggled so long to feel entitled to. Merely wanting it had tested her marriage; getting it had disrupted the family when they'd moved to this house she'd found, almost on a dare. Yet Maggie loved the sunny suite, with its wee bathroom and kitchen, its own entrance, detached from the house -- and the house was a great place for the family, closer to schools and to her husband's work, and so much cooler near the coast than inland in their old Scripps Ranch neighborhood, even if it had meant moving from an almost new house into this more spacious but wreckier place -- but it had so much potential, she had cajoled her doubtful husband. And it had a perfect studio for her writing and weaving. It hurt, somehow, to leave that space.
Not that she was unwilling to move out of the studio to make room for her son! God knows, her son needed a safe place. Caught by drugs, battered by the homeless life and months of dangerous company. How could a mother not offer sanctuary?
Maggie’s breath clutched, remembering the shock of his return. His brilliance shattered, memory gone, speech an indecipherable code, body flickering like an old TV. Yet he had come home.
He was off drugs now. Test me, he said, attending meetings every night, struggling every day to stay clean. Hunting for a job he could hold, searching for a path. How could Maggie not honor that? The studio suite was a perfect safe house: bright, private, but close enough if he should ---
Or the mirror, his troubled face, five years older than his age, his behavior five years younger, as he wrestled the heavy books into her new office – his old bedroom, before the drug life sucked him out.
Or the old baby portrait on Maggie’s disheveled desk. Their first born, twenty years ago the joy of their lives.
“O precious” – Maggie whispered. Her chest pulled taut at the thought of her tattered prodigal.
“Could it be, trying so hard to get my son on a new footing, I lost my own?”
“Mmm.” The hands moved to the stermun.. “How did you do so much damage? Your hands should have protected you.”
“I was hurrying with a tape-measure stretched out.”
Maggie recalled the niggle of marital schism, like a pre-shock to a earthquake, creating within the family a sudden massive geologic fault.
“My husband had my tall file cabinet balanced on his foot. He looked pained, you know, halfway between impatience and forbearing. I could hear him thinking – why doesn’t she measure the space and then call me to move the furniture?”
“I know that look! Men often can’t see all that a woman carries.” the Reiki master chuckled.
“So much was happening all at once. The clutter didn’t help.” Hundreds of her book, the stash of years of private study, wobbling in stacks all over the floor. A waist-high mound of sumptuous yarns beneath a tumble of small handlooms for her many weaving projects. Four heavy file drawers askew on the floor, full of unfinished manuscripts, awaiting the move of the cumbersome cabinet.
“Or my glasses, it could have been!”
“You want me to take those?”
Maggie nodded. “I never realized – but my feet are out of focus with these new glasses.”
And of course, there was her age, which was why she needed blended lenses. They could fool a fifty-something into thinking that the seamless flow, the simultaneous multi-tasking of younger days, might still be possible.
“It’s so limiting to focus on one thing at a time. If life keeps on at this pace, kiss mindfulness goodbye forever.”
A coughing fit hit. Maggie tightened her arms against her chest. “It wouldn’t be so bad, the pain, I think, if I could shake this awful cough.”
“Mmmh. Grief hovers in the thorax, Maggie, sometimes tents up in the lungs. Water?”
Maggie raised her head to drink. As she settled back beneath the warm flannel, her shoulder blades slid luxuriously flat, releasing the pressure from the scapular ridges for the first time in weeks. Her neck suddenly extended as if from a shell. A deep smooth sigh flew out, the first painless breath in almost a month. Maggie grinned.
A sudden groan filled the room. Maggie jerked toward the sound. Beside her on the bed, a shriveled old woman wailed, the emaciated body contorted into fetal position. Bony knobs protruded from the crooked spine, bruising the thin skin.
“Old age knocking,” she blurted. “ like the arthritic flare-up that scared me toward reiki initially. Or those killer falls old people take, you know? Last year a friend’s father fell. He was screaming with pain when we got there, frantic, like a child with night terrors. He was on the floor, yelling “I’ve killed myself,” I held his hand. He’ll be fine, the paramedics told my friend, as they rolled her eighty-five year old father toward the ambulance. But her father knew. Pneumonia took over. Two weeks later he was dead.
“The strange thing is that when you’re younger, you have no idea how something like that could happen – catch a toe on a coffee table leg and die. It’s like pregnancy. Until you’ve had someone living in you, a little foot kicking or a string of hiccups inside that you know are not yours, you simply can’t imagine it. Or this fall for me. Suddenly I “get” old age.”
“Yes, aging is initiatory.”
The old woman beside Maggie moaned as she struggled to roll over. Maggie could see her thin thighs, the fat of life gone, and the ribs protruding like a cage.
Maggie gasped. Inside the cage, as in a cave, lay a large stone.
“What’s happening?” her master asked.
“There’s an old woman beside me on the bed. She’s all wizened and bluish. Her hair is tangled in damp, straggly clumps. And her skin is so thin she’s almost a skeleton.”
“Talk to her, Maggie. Who is she?”
“I don’t know! But the day before my mother died--”
Maggie’s chin trembled. “Her skin looked like that. She’d entered the hospital to recover from cancer treatments, crippling radiation burns between her legs and inside. Doctor said she’d be out in a week. But two months later she was still there. She couldn’t eat, the burns wouldn’t heal, tumors popped up like mole hills on her abdomen and the pain was unbearable. Her upper body was emaciated but her legs lay there smooth and thin, innocent, somehow, like a twelve-year-old girl. That first bloom, you know?”
Maggie’s face collapsed. Sobs clotted in her gut. She’d never though of death blooming before. The master’s hands slid down toward her belly.
“That last night, I wanted to hold her. She’d never been cuddly, but suddenly she looked so alone. I wanted to lower the bed-rail and take her in my arms, as I would one of my children but I couldn’t get past who she’d been as a mother. What if she cringed like …? So much of her life had been a violation. And what if my hugging not only affronted her, but physically hurt her? She was so fragile. If only I’d had Reiki to offer her then…”
Maggie put her hands over her face and wept. The cough racked her body as if her lungs would turn inside out. The phlegm coming up tasted so old, as if it had been congealing for years.
“So, Maggie, what’s this got to do with you?”
“I just feel --,” her throat tightened, “-- lost – orphaned, somehow.”
“You mean because your mother died?”
“No, though I have felt that. Now it’s more – I’m bereft. As if I once almost had hold of something, some essential wisdom, but it slipped away. About ten years ago, long before my mother died— I was a mother too by then – I yearned for a wise old woman in my life. Someone who knew me, you know? A person I could snuggle up with over a cup of tea, and talk, about real things. As my mother aged, I started hoping I could share my life with her, the truth of it, and that she’d share her wisdom with me. I tried and tried, but the truth seemed to frighten her, to shut her down. Now I realize she was afraid to speak about so many things. And bitter about how her children had turned out. Like our father, she said we were, so self-absorbed, how did she put it -- so insufferably unique.”
“Mmm, sounds left out and lonely.”
“And hurt, and angry, the pain wild, no one knowing why she wasn’t healing, no one acknowledging that she never would: that she was dying. She was so wounded by the ambush of it all that you ached just looking at her.”
Tears streamed, warm, down Maggie’s cheeks.
“You can heal and still die, Maggie.”
“Like this old creature beside me,” Maggie persisted. “I bet if she opened her mouth, there’d be a thick net stretching up from her lungs. I remember swabbing that milky white web out of my mother’s throat, trying to free up the passage so she wouldn’t have to listen to the coarse rails. Pneumonia like a death rattle. She couldn’t move to help herself and her tongue had shriveled, like the tongue of a little bird. She couldn’t speak, only moan. Not till the autopsy did we know what killed her.”
Maggie clutched her own heaving belly, her hands just below the master’s, as if together they could hold her insides in.
“No!” Maggie called out. “Can you see? The old woman, inside her ribcage, the stone! It’s her heart.”
“Stay with her, Maggie. Breathe down into your belly. I’m here.”
“It’s cold. I can feel it. Stone-cold and hard Like my mother’s heart sometimes. She tried to hide it. But it was like fruit, you know, how surprising it is to a child that inside the soft, ripe, furry peach is that sudden, ragged pit. Oh-h, the hag is reaching inside the cage. Who is she?”
“She’s part of you.”
“But she’s ripping at her chest.”
“I’m going to move my hands to your head now, Maggie. Would you like to go deeper with Reiki?”
Maggie nodded. The master tucked another tissue in Maggie’s hand. Maggie felt the flutter of fingers in her hair, the warm stretch of tender hands over her temples.
The old woman rolled closer. The rancid odor of old aunts exuded from between the drooping dugs. Then Maggie saw it --
She tried not to scream.
“What’s happening, Maggie? My hands are writhing up here.”
“It’s the hag. That stone, that heart, there’s a sword stuck in it.”
Maggie wanted to turn away but the black eyes pierced hers like rivets.
“Talk to her.”
“Who put the sword in your heart?’ Maggie asked.
“Is there a sword in your heart, Maggie?”
Maggie’s chest burned cold.
“Who put that sword in my heart?
“You did, Maggie.”
Maggie clutched her chest. “Why?” Tears streamed down her cheeks and pooled in her ears. It was hard to hear.
“Arrow, missile, spear, bomb, those are the weapons of distance. but the sword, Maggie, signals intimacy. The point is sharp, the blade lithe, the pain clever. Little by little, ambush, heartbreak, errors in judgment, unhealed wounds entice the sword into our hearts. With each contraction we push the blade deeper, hurt, guilt, blame, regret, shame…”
“Do we all have stones for hearts, and swords?”
“We have all been wounded at some time, Maggie.”
“Is my heart stone?”
“Do you want it to be?”
“Does the sword come out?”
“Will you pull?”
“No, each must remove her own and learn to parry.”
Maggie reached for the blade. “I can’t. It’s so sharp.”
The hag lay her hands over Maggie’s and guided them toward her old chest. Maggie could hear the terrible rattle.
“Let me hug you while you push this sword from your heart.”
“But how, with you so close? The physics –“
“Fuck the physics, Maggie. We’re out of your head.”
The ancient fingers, like delicate spiders, moved across her shoulders and clasped, like a necklace, behind her neck.
“Remember what you tripped over?” the old woman whispered in Maggie’s ear.
“A file drawer on the floor.”
“Did it contain something special?”
“No! Just files. Mostly my old papers.”
The heart pounded, like a hammer against the anvil..
Maggie nodded. “Years of it. Forgotten poems, drawings for weavings never strung, unfinished novels, all stuffed away in that drawer. Nights stolen from my husband. Hours pilfered from the children’s day.”
“So you tripped over your own neglected work?”
Maggie struggled for breath. As if falling again, she remembered the terror. As at the funeral of her friend’s father, clods of earth, resounding from the lowered casket, pounding against her chest.
“The call is clear, Maggie. Either you pull the work out, like the spider its thread , or it will pull you in. The web of your influence, Maggie, like this sword in your heart, push it out.”
“But what if my work isn’t worth -- I have so much else to do – that other people expect -- what if there’s no more time to steal –“
“No, Maggie, time is not to steal. Time is only to give. To give to yourself. If your mother’s legacy was a heart of stone, can you soften yours?”
The Reiki Master’s hands moved to the fontanel.
“Who am I, Maggie?” the old voice continued.
Maggie couldn’t move.
“I am indeed the Hag, Maggie. Your spirit recognized me instantly. Hagia, sacred womanness. Fear not my age,” her whisper kissed. “I am old because I have always been, unknown because I am forgot, as your body, until touched, forgets the holy healer, the Hagia Sophia, who holds us all. Older than witches with wisdom bewildering, older than cute young heroes begging a blessing, haggard ward of the heart’s deep work I persist, even to this day. I dance on that sword. When I walk, I edge out on the threads you are weaving. I thirst. Your words are water to me.”
“Ahch” she gurgled a laugh in Maggie’s ear. “Your tears are so salty! The great swords of old, white-hot from the forge, were quenched in human blood and just such tears. Ohch! Feel that? The foundry’s flame, fondling the foundling. See, your heart beats it out.” She licked her lips. “Mmm, How I love that smell, like fresh bread baking! With Mother’s milk butter soft from the churn. That sweet melting. My cup runneth over! Mmmh, in a heart so hot, a Sword translates into Words.”
Maggie was not sure how long it was before she opened her eyes.
“Time’s up,” the master said, gently jiggling Maggie’s body. “Feel how the chest and belly muscles have softened? Easy, getting up. Here, your glasses.”
For Jean Ferris and Jan Phillips