Maya Greenwood Embodies the Reaper

TFST Concept Art by Andrew Jones

In Starhawk’s ecotopian novel The Fifth Sacred Thing (1994), the pacifistic, neoPagan residents of San Francisco in the year 2048 must endure and somehow prevail over an invasion by the militaristic Stewards from the South Lands.

As part of a multifaceted strategy, the San Franciscans conjure the ritual of “haunting”, in which the friends and relatives of people killed by the Stewards’ army dress in white and tell individual soldiers about their victims’ lives. The “ghosts” then remind the soldiers that they, too, have a place in San Francisco, if they will but choose to take it; that they need never again be ordered to commit murder, and might live freely and productively in a community of friends, rather than as instruments of war.

This tactic of high-stakes psychological street theater initially results in more San Franciscan deaths, as the panicked soldiers respond by shooting the “ghosts”, but this only generates more hauntings.

The following passages describe the unique haunting of a Steward general by one of the novel’s protagonists, the 99-year-old Maya Greenwood:

Meanwhile, Maya, fed up with doing nothing, put on a white dress, brushed out her long silver hair, wrapped a white cloak around herself, and took her silver-handled walking stick down from its peg. No one moved on the walkways, except, here and there, an armed khaki-dressed figure or a ghost in white like her, on a mission of haunting. The morning had passed by the time she reached the old stone mansion atop Nob Hill where the general made his headquarters. The steps of the house were lined with ghosts, silent and patient in their white cloaks. Maya could see that in some of the watchers’ patience had hardened into apathy and desolation. Still they waited. No one emerged. She mounted the steps, leaning heavily on her cane, then used it to pound on the locked front door. Finally, the door opened a crack and a dark face peered out. ‘Get off the steps, or we’ll clear you off! You can’t come in here!’

‘You can’t keep me out,’ Maya said, sliding her cane into the crack and butting against the door with her shoulder. But really it was her eyes that gave her entrance. For she’d slipped out of herself and something larger had slipped in: the Reaper, La Segadora, the Old Crone, the Death Hag. She’d become the Implacable One, and no boy soldier could withstand her. She pushed the guard out of the way and strode down the hall. He followed after her and tried to grab her arm, but she dangled her cane between his feet and he tripped and fell hard on the marble floor. I’m skirting the edge of nonviolence, she admitted, but while he was gathering himself up again she pushed through a pair of imposing double doors and found herself in the general’s office.

Maya pounded her cane on the floor, and the general turned and stared.

‘What in Satan’s name is this? How the hell did she get in here? Who are you?’

Maya opened her mouth to say something reasonable, but what came out seemed to come through her from somewhere else. ‘Your death,’ Maya said. ‘I’m what you’ve always resisted and what you come to in the end. Your fate. I’m the gray in your hair, the lines on the back of your hand. I’m the Reaper, the reckoning, the consequences of your actions. I’m your chance to rise to the opportunity you have here. I see who you are, and who you might be. Your ancestors cluster around you. One of them is a small boy who watches as the Inquisitors drag his mother off, strip her naked in the public square, prick her with needles searching for devil’s marks, rape her, and burn her alive. I see his eyes as he watches the flesh that meant his comfort and food crackle and char, as the hands that soothed him blacken. I see him wear that pain as armor, grow into it until it becomes his skin. And now he is a grown man in a faraway place: La Gorée, Africa. Do you know that name? The Last Door, they called it, an island through which all slaves passed on their way out of the continent. And here he is, your illustrious forefather, in the rape room, violating a black woman while her own small boy is forced to watch. Maybe he leaves his seed in her, seed of pain that grows in her belly and somehow survives the Middle Passage through hell to be born. Not your ancestor, that one, but the father of fathers of one of these men here, or my grandson. And the woman is able to love the child, as women do love, until this one too is torn away from her. Oh, it’s awesome what human beings are capable of doing to each other and surviving. So many women harboring seeds of pain, nurturing, bringing them to birth so those offspring can enact their pain on some other woman’s body, and always, always with one hope – that somehow, someday, this will change. Someone will refuse to pass the pain on any longer. Who knows? Maybe you are that person?’

The general stared at Maya, transfixed. ‘Pain forms a man,’ he said. ‘Or breaks him. A man isn’t made until he’s been broken.’ Then he seemed to shake himself awake. ‘What’s your name?’

Maya took a deep breath. The Reaper deserted her, and she was just a woman again, old and small. She drew herself up to her full height and spoke with dignity. ‘Maya Greenwood.’

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