I have begun collecting gemstones and leaving them in melamine bowls on my deck when the astrological signs are changing, or when the moon is full, or when rain is expected so I can cleanse them. I read about that practice on a website after I’d Googled “meaning of carnelian.” I am casting my astrological houses, and I check my Co-Star app in the morning as regularly as I used to read my syndicated horoscope in the “Living” section of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star. That was back when I invented my own horoscopes out of song lyrics; I wrote down the lines I wanted to guide myself through the high school halls, and I would draw one of the scraps out of a cardboard box I kept on my dresser top.


Now I wear raw opal and ruby rings during my entire sun sign’s reign, and I watch for numerology. I am only beginning this essay because today is 8/1 and eight is my lucky number. It is not only 8/1; it is 8/1/2019 and 2019 minus 8 is 2011, the year Betsy died. There is 1 left behind. I look for order because it soothes me; I follow rituals because they are born of experience. I am a cradle-raised Catholic and a cradle-raised liberal progressive, still accepting the closed circuit of a two-thousand-year-old religion because I love the recitation and repetition of ancient prayers. They return me to the girl I was.


I am not supposed to say this, but I prefer the Old Testament to the New because I take comfort in the idea of dictates that no person could feasibly follow—the impossibility negates my failures. I am not supposed to say this, but I stand behind the ambo and read to the people in the pews once a month because I get to interpret God’s word, craftily emphasizing my diction to embed my personal understanding into the record. I am not supposed to say this because ecclesiastically, I know better, but the saints are like household gods. I tuck a prayer card for St. Kateri, the patron saint of people in exile, on the fridge; I place her statue on my bookshelf, her unlit novena candle on my desk. I call to Kateri now, though Lucy is my Confirmation saint—the girl whose name I took when I was confirmed as a Catholic. I do not ask for Lucy much anymore. I found out I needed glasses when I was seventeen, and since I thought Lucy was the patron saint of eyesight, I figured it couldn’t hurt to get her special intercessions. But Lucy is actually the patron saint of blindness, and I have worn glasses for the last twenty years, so.


My parish priest recently told us about the church built atop Golgotha, the site of Jesus’s crucifixion. He prefaced his homily by saying, “Now, this is a religious story, not an archaeological story.” He said the altar is built directly over the place where the cross was positioned, and after Mass, pilgrims reach their hands underneath to touch the rock of Golgotha with their bare hands. Dug into the earth one floor beneath that rock, there is a chapel built to honor Adam, because Jesus’s death site was Adam’s burial site as well. The priest’s homily was about ancestral ties, the bonds that elongate and stretch from our rib-creation past into the infinite future. The priest said that when Jesus bled, his blood seeped through the soil to fall onto Adam’s skull, which is to say to fall on all of us, since we are all linear descendants of the first human. I imagine how long those bones waited to be redeemed, shifting millimeter by millimeter to position themselves underneath a site pregnant with meaning, a receptacle for the future.


* * * * *


I am trying to bring everything into alignment. If I can redirect the bisecting lines of the past and the truth, I can stop them from cutting my heart in half. I was driving to pick up my daughters from camp, listening to America’s “You Can Do Magic” on SiriusXM Yacht Rock Radio, thinking about how I generate things into existence. I pulled up behind a car with the license plate letters ECU, which was the university in North Carolina where my father taught when I was in middle school. The place where Betsy cracked my adolescence in two, leaving behind a raw wound that can never heal because the dead cannot accept forgiveness. I can find meaning anywhere. I will find meaning anywhere. I don’t think I have given up on the corporeal world as much as I am making another place in case I need it. I do not fault deathbed conversion cases for suddenly trying to rectify all the years they chose not to live by a punitive code—I understand the need to have their bases covered. Didn’t God arrange the stars in the sky? Didn’t God give us the curiosity and knowledge to find the meanings He imbued in this world? This is how I can hold all of these beliefs simultaneously. I am hooking connecting strings around the forensic evidence on the walls of my conscience.


Talismans are nothing new to me. Reinterpreting meanings is nothing new to me. I took classes in herbalism for three years, learning to create tinctures and wildcraft herbs and to leave an offering behind when I harvested. My teacher pulled out her gray hairs when she came to collect my hyssop, an herb used for ritual purification. She told me the plants which flourish near us are the ones we need. She also said, later, in the kitchen attached to her office, that we are drawn toward certain herbs. My teacher had me hold three closed bottles in my hand and she watched which one I felt like I needed to sniff.


I have a jar of blue vervain marinating on my countertop. I received a birthday bouquet of wild-picked blue vervain from my husband and it is drying on my desktop. I carry an amber glass bottle of blue vervain in my purse at all times, the same way I am always packing Tums. Blue vervain is an anxiolytic, an herb grown to soothe Type A tension, the nervous stress I carry with me always. I shoot dropperfuls into my mouth before I leave my car, before I make a phone call, when I feel threatened. I look like an addict.


I have a cabinet in my bathroom full of bottled herbs I have tinctured, yellow dock and skullcap and black cohosh. I have an alphabetized binder with printouts from the Herb of the Month Club. I have measured four drops of lemon balm, three drops of elderflower, and four drops of hyssop into a cup and slurried it with water, asking my four-year-old to drink her medicine. I trust in herbalism for the ailments which have been around for centuries, the ones no one ever died from but needed to be cured nonetheless: low-grade fevers, urinary tract infections, sore throats. I have heated salt in a skillet and poured it into a warm towel on my sister’s stomach; I have diced a garlic clove and warmed it in olive oil before droppering two squeezes into my daughter’s earache.


My yarrow is extensive, my elder stands are legendary, but my echinacea boggles my husband’s eyes. He has been asking me, for years, to replant the four-foot stalks of echinacea pallida which tower along the pathway to our front door. I love how wild it looks, my native prairie strain soaking up the eastern sun, raggedly bordering our suburban house as if to say: here, first. When I told him I was planting echinacea, my husband thought it would be the pretty PowWow Wild Berry version they sell at Lowe’s; he didn’t plan on this. Every year I refuse to dig them up, even though the power is in the roots, not the leaves and flowers I pick and pickle in Everclear. My husband is allergic to echinacea, we recently realized, when a contact brush bloomed red and angry across his forearm. I doctored him with a calendula-infused beeswax ointment, and I held my plants back with a fence of twine, reluctantly.


* * * * *


I looked at my daughter’s sixth-grade schedule because I wanted to help her learn her locker combination. Her locker number will be 1168, which did not surprise me as much as it hollowed my solar plexus. 1168 were the last four digits of Betsy’s phone number. I had been talking to my friends earlier that same day about how middle school changed me from susceptible to secretive. I was thinking about Betsy. I was also thinking about Indiana, both of our birthplace, the residence we had in common beyond our middle school exile to North Carolina. Indiana was also the place where I refused to know her again in high school once we had both moved back and she tried to return to me. Indiana is also the place where she was buried.


It was 8/1, one month beyond Betsy’s death date on 7/1/2011. I know it looks like I am grabbing at meaning and I do not care. 8/1/2019: one month later, eight years later, the last four digits of her phone number resurfacing as my daughter prepared for middle school. Betsy has spoken through the illusion veil before. Really, I just want to believe she is still speaking to me. I am still listening.


* * * * *


I have performed many years of magical thinking, which is why Joan Didion’s book scared me so badly. Didion is famously rational, impassionate, removed, but she fell apart looking for order when she lost someone. It is a harbinger I keep on my bookshelf, a reference guide for loss and a checklist to ensure I can find my way back out.


I have so much fear over how unbothered my tightened circle of trust has been since Betsy. None of my parents or siblings or daughters have died precipitously; no one has had catastrophe. Something is imminent. It must be. It is not enough to ward the nightmare off with charms and stones. I have to prepare. So I run through scenarios, ones far from worst-case, to give myself little tests before the final. What will I do if. What will I do when.


What have I done but arranged the bones just-so, devising a tableau of possible mistakes, horrible spells I am afraid I may have called into being?


* * * * *


I am fixated on how I have three planets in my Twelfth House, the house which The Only Astrology Book You’ll Ever Need calls “the House of Secrets, Sorrows, and Self-Undoing.” I cannot believe that eighteen years ago, I encountered this exact same book on a shelf in a dorm room outside of Glacier National Park and now I am studying it, at thirty-seven, like it can give me the explanations I crave. That was more than half my lifetime ago.


Back then, I was obsessed with finding meaning in the song lyrics my ex-boyfriend quoted in his emails. I was calibrating my own, responding with just enough to tease the tip of what I meant; the rest was there if he searched for it. He did not, or at least he did not let on.


Now I am reading about my Cancer sun and Aquarian moon, tilting my birth time one hour forward to accommodate the daylight savings time that Indiana, actually, did not participate in during July 1982. I am trying to make my computer-calculated horoscope agree that I am a Scorpio rising rather than a Libra. I have no idea if the Cafe Astrology website already knows to do that—I had to Google “Indiana time zone” because I remember the state’s position changing and shifting, one season in Eastern before switching to Central, the TV schedules getting all confused. All I know is that every description of a secretive Scorpio rising makes more sense, in my past, than the personable Libra.


It is exhausting making sense of myself.


I think it matters that I am a Cancer sun, pulling people and emotions toward me, and that I am also an Aquarian moon, pushing everyone and everything away, declaring the uselessness of emotionality. That is how I choose to interpret my astrological signs. It feels good to think that I am born to push and pull; it takes the burden off my actions.


I explain to myself to keep it straight, paraphrasing from my book: the moon sign is your inner core, the sun sign your life story, the rising sign the way you are perceived by others. I am, at my core, an unemotional person who requires rationality and distance. But my life arcs around the search for home—the mooncrab heart of my hidy-hole—and the desire to scuttle to safety, clutching everything I need. I appear secretive and abrasive and dogmatic, because I am. I am a water sign—a Cancer—and my moon sign is Aquarius, the Water-Bearer. I inwardly cling with my claws like a crab, and I outwardly whip my hard-shelled tail at anyone who approaches me—a Scorpio. It all makes sense, but I want it to make sense.


There’s more. So much more than I can outline, though I am carefully underlining passages in my Planets in Houses and Astrology for Lovers books, both undermining my recognition that there is not one Only Astrology Book I’ll Ever Need. But I’m trying. There are twelve houses in which the planets can be located, but a person does not necessarily have a planet in each house, or in many. Aquarius’s ruling planet is Uranus, which is located in my First House, the house of self-identity. I hold the moon’s location in my Fourth House, the house of home. My Cancer sun’s ruling planet is the moon; Cancer is the traditional ruler of the home. I am a collapsing Ouroboros, eating my moon in my house and spilling it into the guts of my house which is built of moon.


In my horoscope, the Twelfth House is granted the three planets of boldness, abundance, and death-and-rebirth—a Plutonian underworld marked by my dark Scorpio rising. My three-planet stellium, my strongest pull, my Twelfth House—what does it mean to be magnetized by the grief of secrets I have hidden because I cannot undo them?


* * * * *


I took my daughters onto a side trail at a nearby forest and the crickets were so loud we couldn’t hear much else. We were halfway into the woods, we hadn’t encountered another person, and my daughters had paused and turned around to face me. A summer doe suddenly burst from the trees, bisecting our path. She couldn’t have been more than eight feet away from my oldest daughter. I was the only one looking forward; it was like the doe ran by just for me. It was the sort of thing a mom lies about to get her kids to be quiet, shhhh if we’re quiet enough maybe we’ll see wildlife. But I really saw it. The doe was as tall as I was, so large she would have mowed my daughter over. She could have mowed me over. But she did not.


When I was hiking in Utah with my sister, we went off-trail behind the Dark Angel in Arches National Park. We were trying our best to follow animal paths to avoid straying onto the bio-crust. We were so far away from the main trail that no one else was in sight. We were looking for a specific petroglyph panel and we couldn’t find it. Instead, I found a feather right in the middle of the track we were tracing out. I picked the feather up and tucked the little gift into my hatband, feeling chosen.


It was like the time I was driving my daughters home along a well-driven street near our house in Nebraska. We crossed over a train trestle and for some reason, I looked down at the tracks. There were a pair of foxes sitting right on the rails, like an omen just for me. My daughters got angry I didn’t tell them to look in time, but they couldn’t have seen the foxes anyway.


I saw a deer down by the train tracks that run behind my neighborhood a week or so before I left for my trip to Utah. I was in training, walking in the summer humidity of 8 p.m. with my dog every night so I could manage the impending thick heat of July in the desert. The doe crossed the street just as I happened to cross the same street, looking to see if any cars were coming. My dog did not see the doe, but I did.


They were the same tracks where I believed the mountain lion lived, must have been four or five years ago now. She really did creep around the tracks—there were sightings marked in a mile-wide radius that spring. I watched for the mountain lion every night I drove home from Hy-Vee in the dusk, but I did not see her. Still, it gave me comfort, oddly, to think of the mountain lion padding around my neighborhood at large, circling us in, enveloping suburbia with a presence older than humans. My sister and brother-in-law believe in Animal Medicine. They have cards they draw like tarot, and they watch for animals as directional signposts. Mountain Lion, when I look it up, refers to convictions, and pulling Mountain Lion is a sign that you might be found at fault for the insecurities of others.


The mountain lion was spotted in the wild for several weeks until she showed up at a nearby center for abused children, leaning against the warm cement block right outside an office window. Parks & Game was called, but they deferred to the safety of the children. So the police aimed their rifles at her and shot six rounds, five more coups de grâce to ensure the mountain lion would not attack. Once she was assuredly dead, Animal Control removed her body, only then discovering the mountain lion’s broken leg.


* * * * *


I say prayers of protection; I always have. I perform a ritual progression before I can fall asleep, a closing of safe circles, chanting “Please don’t let anything scary be, happen, or do anything in my room, my closet, the rest of my house, around my house, all our property, and everything that affects me.” I say an upside-down pyramid of prayers, five Hail Marys, four Our Fathers, three Hail Marys, two Our Fathers, and I close with one final Hail Mary to the woman I trust to guard me. The Bible says help will be given to those who ask, so I ask. Or maybe that was Dumbledore in Harry Potter. It doesn’t matter; I believe in them both.


* * * * *


The full moon in Aquarius approached for the first and only time all year.


I was going to end this essay describing how I gathered my amethyst and calcite, rose quartz and malachite, carnelian and citrine, laid down on my deck in the moonlight and positioned the stones in a rainbow down my chakras. I wanted the planets fixed around me, Mars in Libra in my Twelfth House, bold and fair and weighing the pros and cons of listening for a connection.


But the Aquarian full moon happened on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary—a holy day of obligation observing Mary’s full-body-ascension to heaven. So I went to Mass and listened to another lector read from the Book of Revelation. She said, “A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun with the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” I heard her emphasize the word “moon.”


The full moon was also Open House Night at my daughter’s middle school. She showed me how she could open her locker—start on 47, spin to 29, go back two notches to 27. Betsy was 29 when she died; I met her 27 years ago. Will I still be circling around the sorrows of my life when I am 47? Will I still be performing semiotics on what it meant when my younger daughters arrived home that same night and told me they had slowed down at the train tracks because my middle daughter could sense there was a fox—and there was—and they all saw it, but I didn’t?


Everything is already in alignment. But I am looking for it. I know.

Cover Art by Samantha Park

Kristine Langley Mahler
Kristine Langley Mahler

Kristine Langley Mahler is a memoirist experimenting with the truth on the suburban prairie outside Omaha, Nebraska. Her work received the Rafael Torch Award from Crab Orchard Review, won the 2019 Sundog Lit Collaboration Contest, was named Notable in Best American Essays 2019, and has been recently published in DIAGRAM, Ninth Letter, The Normal School, Waxwing, and The Rumpus, among others. She is the Publisher/Editor-in-Chief at Split/Lip Press. Find more about her projects at kristinelangleymahler.com [http://kristinelangleymahler.com/] or @suburbanprairie.

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