A Treatise On The Old Powers
By Max Oanad
If you can read this, then we have something in common. We both come from the old time, before the catabolism, an event you might remember in old terms; market values, mechanical malfunctions, magnetic poles, solar storms, tectonic plates. We both remember watching as the cosmos refused those terms, shaking them off like broken shackles, running wild. We remember realizing the time we lived in was no longer ours. We realized that the bindings we had been trained to wield now only held us back, the universe we had been disciplined and trained to wield had broken free, leaving us ill-adapted to the semiologies of survival emerging around us.
We watched our younger siblings, who never expected anything else, take to the feral cosmos with an unfearing proficiency. Using tools we often cannot perceive properly, they created a world in which we are increasingly anathema. All the while we watch dumbfounded, not old enough to have been heroes; Great Ones who shepherded whatever humans they could into this new time, but old enough so that our expectations of the old world haunt our ability to participate in this one. Like fish whose younger siblings crawl out of the water to breath the air and see the sky, we watch, unable to follow, unable to see past the surface, which for us is still the sky.
In the world we were trained for, being an adult meant knowing how to read, how to write, how to do math, how to drive a car, understanding how money worked, how time worked, how laws worked. In this world, such things would be frivolities if they were not so tedious. Not only are they useless, but they can endanger a growing mind which needs to learn other things, like how to use blood to awaken a bike and keep it alive, how to navigate an airship through the storms of lost thoughts, how to listen to the song of the stars and call water from the other three elements, how to see a horizon beast, and gain its trust. This is why we will always be outsiders, because we will never be able to do these things.
No doubt you have found this document as part of your search for those old powers which had once been our birthright, powers which could once bring all of existence to heel. Understand that I once wished to do the same thing.
When I was little, people would ask me what I wanted to be. I told them I wanted to be an astronaut. Such a fun, ambitious sounding word for what they used to call “a girl”. It seems silly, antiquated and overcomplicated, now that all you need is someone who can sing the Song of Folding Distances to walk in the light of any sun you wish. Still, I can remember staring up at the sky as its meaning changed, as I realized the word astronaut would never make sense again.
I remember looking up words adults used to try to explain what was happening, applying images to names, as if the answer to saving everything lay in understanding what the adults were talking about. Eventually, the adults stopped having words for things. After that, the adults I knew were gone, and instead there was Pama Tu, a different kind of adult, the kind that I had been told not to stare at.
Somehow Pama Tu and the others like them knew how to live in this new time, and they showed us how as best they could. They taught us how to gather water from the air with screens and filter it in barrels of gravel, how to find food and how to make food more plentiful, how to hide while we waited for the last bullet to be fired, knowing that there would be no way to make more.
At some point, I understood what I had been frantically trying to stop had already happened, that the bound and subdued world which had been promised to me once I was old enough to wield it had escaped forever. What was left were so many broken pedestals in the desert, the names of which only I, and others like me, could read because our minds had already paid that terrible cost.
I had been reading for years when they discovered it made the difference between the old minds and the new, that it was almost as bad as coming to sentience inside a room full of right angles. I tried to stop reading, but the damage had been done. No strange unimaginable powers awakened within me, I could not perceive new patterns in nature, no ancient reawakened beings came to teach me their language and ways.
I can remember when many of the younger children started talking about strange animals we couldn’t see which grazed on the ruins of the old world. They would be gone for days and return with stories too strange to believe until the day they took us to gather mint, wild onions, and tubers in places that should have been only ruin and desolation. I can remember my mind straining to see beyond the lines I used to distinguish one thing from another, catching for a brief moment a glimpse of the new patterns drifting over the land and making it blossom, my younger siblings riding them like dancers on the horizon. I remember Pama Tu, standing there in bewilderment looking at me and saying “Who ever thought, back when I rode a subway to a building where I gave my life to nothing, that the world would shape up like this?”
I should have been happy, but I ran to Pama Tu and sobbed, “Why can’t I see them? Why can’t I ride them?” They comforted me as best they could, but they were as powerless as I in the face of this world and its indifferent wonders. I retreated to my books and my typewriter, hoping that words might be my power.
I quickly learned that the stagnancy of words was no longer useful in a place where things attached to other things and became something new altogether. Using the old words kept me from perceiving the chaos, a comfort that locked my mind into one state, one angle, one moment of a thing, and in doing so losing its emerging totality. In the old world, everything had already been categorized and decided in a way that the Great Ones said trapped their potential. When things freed themselves, resulting in the catabolism, when so many new things emerged, the Great Ones wanted to leave things as unsorted as they could, letting the children born to this world create the language they would use to swim in it.
As others like me, I struggled to understand the language they came up with, a language as free from rules and structures as the age which it gave meaning.
I remember rebelliously naming the place we lived the Fractured Planes/Plains, thinking it was clever that both words could be spoken at the same time. Now, the name is a joke. They will come up to me, point out at whatever comprises the landscape, and laughingly say the name that I gave it so long ago. What really gets them going is when I try to explain why it ever made sense in the first place.
Instead of giving up, I retreated even further into the written. I committed my mind to the impossible task of translating every ever-changing thing into the language of the old time. This they warily indulged, and I was often given pens, along with scavenged books and paper, the edges torn off to break the rectangles, thus mitigating the risk of invoking the baleful old powers.
One day Pama Tu, after noticing I’d been feverishly working at my writing for hours, came and sat next to me. We had discussed this kind of thing before, why I buried myself in words, my isolation, why I thought this was my only choice in the face of the unfairness of the world. But tonight something was different. Something about the way they spoke.
“I know that you don’t remember much of the old world. Even though you’ve heard the stories, you can’t know the way that words hunted us, the way that numbers waited for us at night. Our lives spent in rectangles as we worked in numbers and words. When I wasn’t thinking of words and numbers, I was dreaming of some kind of different world, and when the chance for that world came—when the catabolism happened and we were able to see beyond the rectangles that had been drawn around us—I realized that chance had arrived. I won’t pretend that I understand you, but when I see you working at this thing the way you do, I see someone who is waiting for their chance.”
They gripped my hand and looked into my eyes. “When my chance came, I was ready to dance on these new winds, but I saw you and all these other little storm seeds and I knew I had to bring you with me just to see what you would grow into. I promise you that one day your chance will come, but every chance comes with a choice about how you will shape this world. So go back to your words, just don’t forget that there is a world beyond them, a world that is worth protecting.”
I had no idea what they were talking about. All I remembered from the old world was that it had been stable, it had been safe, and it had been mine. I had no idea of the ancient and compulsive horrors which had been used to break people like Pama Tu, which could be resummoned into the world. I had a faint recollection of things like ammunition, things like laws, things like debt; things which I could never fully understand. I knew how those words were defined by other words and how they made numbers change, but I didn’t learn how those words and numbers changed the world, changed the heart –until they took Pama Tu.
We had grown up hearing stories about debt, about how the old world ran on its power to compel people to do things against their will. Like everyone, we were told never to expect to get back what we had given. To do such a thing would give us an unnatural power over the other person, that it would cause both people to think in numbers in harmful ways, making other things invisible or irrelevant.
We knew that Pama Tu, like all of the Great Ones, had debt. That was how things were before the catabolism, people had no choice about things, everything was built up so that everyone had to serve the old powers that ran on debt and spewed ammunition. Even the ones like Pama Tu, who could see them and fight against them, were still a part of them; they had debt and fired ammunition, or made it, or made things for the people who did. As Pama Tu liked to say “you either made ammunition, or you cleaned for the people who did”.
In a world where people ride the beasts of the horizon, build airships and blood bikes and hear the songs of stars on water, the stories the Great Ones told about the world before the catabolism were just stories, stories to scare us off to bed or to keep us in line. Behave, or the ways of the old world will return. Even I, who spent my time reading about these things, and had the vaguest memories of them, had trouble imagining it.
And so when we heard the rumors of men riding on strange, loud machines, men who were tracking down and hunting the Great Ones for their debt, we were not nearly as afraid or angry as we should have been. After all, such a thing seemed too distant and strange to be real. We should have known better.
They took Pama Tu when they went into the new grazing grounds. We should have stopped them, but to be fair, they didn’t believe any more than we did that the old powers would come back. They wanted to look at the sunlight on the old brick buildings just after the rain. They said that there was no sight quite like it, they wanted to see it before the beasts got to it, and really, who were we to stop them?
When the rain returned, but Pama Tu didn’t, we worried. A group of listeners went into the grazing grounds to find them, returning with nothing except a story about the bricks and broken concrete, a story of a quiet moment in the sun after the rain, a story of that moment being broken by men in heavy vehicles with chains and whips and dogs, men who barked like dogs, whose barks could still be heard alongside Pama Tu swearing and screaming for help ringing faintly in the glass of the broken windows. That is what they told me.
They sent riders to find out if others had lost Great Ones in this way, to invite them to a gathering so that we could find out what was happening and get our Great Ones back. The First People, whose knowledges went back to before the old world, whose ways of living had survived the destructive terror of the old powers even as they bore the brunt of their wrath, they also came to the gathering because their Elders had been taken.
It did not take us long to find the place where they had brought our Great Ones and the Elders of the First People. We went in the direction where the ash in the sky was coming from, we followed the waters which ran red with something that made the mouth and throat burn. The sky cried out where they were. As we moved forward under ever darkening skies and poisoned rivers, we heard the listeners tell us what had happened when the Great Ones and the Elders and their kidnappers had passed this way: where the ancient machines had stopped, where people had tried to escape and how; where they had been recaptured, and how they had been punished.
When we arrived at the place where they had taken our Great Ones and the Elders, our heads were full of the listeners’ stories. We could not mistake the sight of the place, so unmistakable, and it was almost too much to bear.
You can tell when the powers of the old world are being invoked because to do so involves using geometries that do not naturally occur on this plane. There is a shape that I can draw on a piece of paper, which to me looks like a three dimensional cube; to my younger siblings, it looks like so many surgical slices in the fabric of the universe, threatening to bind their minds.
The depiction of such a shape was terrifying enough for them, but the actual construction was something their minds, and what we people used to call sanity, was not capable of bearing. And so when we saw the place where they had taken our Great Ones and the Elders; this perfectly cubic wall, with so many smaller cubes inside, the relentlessly Euclidean geometries summoning forth the eldritch forces long dispelled from this world, imprisoning the people we loved as it leeched poison into the earth, into the sky and into waters, many of my siblings fell to the earth, gripping it desperately.
What we did not know is that the people who had taken our Great Ones were already expecting us. They sent men out to tell us that they understood why were upset, but that they had an explanation, and if some of us were to tour the place with them, we would come back and be able to explain everything to everyone else.
Of the entire horde assembled, I was the only in-between child. Even if any of my younger siblings were willing to enter that baleful plane, to walk with those who had summoned the old ways, they might not be able to see what needed to be seen, and navigate the laws of that place without becoming bound to them.
My hands shook as I stepped forward to volunteer. I had spent the better part of my life reminiscing and fantasizing about the old world. Yet there was a stark difference between my imaginings and this towering place. It was terrifyingly real, and yet I could still remember entire landscapes of such places stretching to the horizon before the catabolism. This place was nothing compared to the powers as they existed before, the powers which as a child I had not feared. I said this to myself as my knees buckled and my courage faltered in the face of this thing that threatened to devour everything I had known since I had been with Pama Tu.
Pama Tu! They were inside this place, them and others like them, so precious to us. Someone had to go in and see them, to find them, to see if they were alright, and how could they be alright in a place like this? So I stepped forward and said “I will go in with you. I will tell the others what I see.”
I almost expected someone to speak out against me, to say that I couldn’t be trusted, that I was an in-between child and so might be lured into the old ways. They would have been right. Even I didn’t know if the very power of that place, and my mind’s attunement to it, would be too powerful to resist. Instead, the ones who could muster the strength to walk over to me did.
They gathered around me, draping me with protections, some of which I could see and feel, others I could not. Some of them looked me in the eyes as they offered me voice gifts:
“May this one walk into the darkness untouched,”
“May the threads which connect this one to us remain unsevered,”
“May this one see with clarity past all illusions,”
“May this one return to us, whole as they are now.”
Feeling the power of these gifts surrounding me and coursing through me, I turned to the men, and followed them to the entrance.
The gate opened, and I turned to look back one more time at the beauty of the great horde spread across a landscape that I still could not make sense of, but which had become home. Then I followed the men across the threshold, and entered the rectangle.
There was nothing the hordes could give me that would have protected me from the power of that place. The moment I stepped through the gate, the charms around my neck, arms, shoulders, head and waist became so many pointless gaudy baubles, the words they had spoken became pithy sayings in the face of a relentlessly stable Truth. Nothing coursed through me. Nothing connected me to anything. Naked in a world of right angles, I was home.
I had entered reality again. For the first time since the catabolism, everything around me made sense. It took a few seconds for my mind to readjust to the old forms, as if I had been on a boat since the catabolism, and had just stepped now back onto solid ground. For the first time since the catabolism, I could point at something and name it, and be right. I could name everything I was looking at: stairs, bars, locks, crates.
They had brought back things that I had thought were lost forever—how had they found them? I stared at the screens full of numbers and the papers full of numbers as the men explained to me how all of our Great Ones had debt which they had never been able to get rid of. But now these men had found a way to help them get rid of it, because they had also found how to make ammunition. By making ammunition, our Great Ones could get rid of their debt.
There it was. They had awakened the power of debt. They had harnessed it and used it to compel our Great Ones in this place. Suddenly they felt less great to me. The debt hung on them like a stain, something they had tried to hide, and Pama Tu had been good at hiding it. Maybe that was why they didn’t want us to talk about it, that was why they were afraid of it, they knew that if we understood debt, we would see them for what they were. They were people who had taken and not given back. There it was, all in the numbers, in the words. You could measure their worth, the absence of their worth, the vacuum of their worth. A vacuum they could fill in this place and become whole again.
Then they took me to see the ones with debt, to watch them mixing powders, making shells and casings, filling those shells and casings with powder. I listened as the men explained how the Great Ones had lied to us all about the old world; in the old world people had things that until now we would never have, but now we had a chance to have those things again. There they were: the computers, the papers, the wires, the water that had been forced into the walls.
I looked at the ones with debt, the ones that were now workers, they were wretched. Their eyes were sad and empty as they gave the reawakened old powers what was owed. I tried to feel pity, but all I could feel was embarrassment for them. They had let themselves have debt, why should we trust them with anything? I wanted to help them, but I could feel the strength of the old powers and knew that this was just the way things were. I tried to find Pama Tu amongst them, and I may have seen them, or someone that looked like them, but everything looked different in this place.
They took me to another room, showed me more papers full of words and numbers, the ones which promised to release their workers if others agreed to work to fulfill their debts. Amidst the beeping and the clicking and the clanging, the men offered me perfectly rectangular papers which explained how many people the gathered horde needed to give the men and how many years would pass until more people would need to be brought to this place. I took the papers, feeling the power that they conferred. I held them as I was led back out to the threshold, back to the world that would never be home, the world that would never be something I could understand no matter how long I lived there. I crossed back to the horde and tried to remember that they had once been my people.
It was hard to make sense of anything. My memories of the catabolism were that it had been violent and sudden. I had not realized how gradual the transition from the old world to this one had been, until now, as my mind stepped instantly from the old reality to this one. I was unable to latch onto anything that would make everything else make sense. The landscape buckled, someone was screaming to music which made the people change colors. Worlds grew like grain and became stars on the clear water of a sun drenched ocean. Some of them were people, or animals.
I stood on that ocean. I tried to tune out the song, tried to navigate by memory, but everything had already escaped my memories, had become something else. My connection to this time had been severed. Whatever habits of mind I had used to translate this present into something I could understand had been lost when I had entered the rectangle.
I was sure they were all there, staring at me, waiting for me to tell them what I had seen, but how could I? What words would I use to describe the incomprehensible to the incomprehensible? Standing on the threshold between two worlds, neither of which I could fully translate to the other, I realized that this was what I had been waiting for. All that time keeping the words, understanding the old world—everything had been to prepare me for this moment, and yet I was not ready.
All I had was the knowledge that back inside the rectangle lay a place and a time in which I had power. My entire being wanted nothing more than to crawl back inside, to live there, to join the men as we brought the world to heel with the old powers. I would watch my siblings who had once mocked me made hollow and meaningless by toil.
This was what Pama Tu had meant about my choice, but it didn’t really feel like a choice. Her words were the words of an indebted, who would have done anything, said anything, to not pay back what she owed the old powers. I had to find a way to explain to them what needed to happen, how many people they needed to send in, for how long, and how many more people after that. I stared at the sheets of paper, feeling their power, trying to find a way to bring that power into this place, this time beyond the catabolism.
What I had forgotten was that this time and this place, and the people who belonged here, had powers all their own. They did not care whether I could perceive them or believe in them, they surrounded me like a thick inconvenience, making it hard for me to make out the words on the sheets, making it hard for me to turn what I had to say into words that could be understood by the horde.
As I stood there, trying to find the words that would make my siblings bow to the powers of the old world, I flashed on a memory, a summer day when I had taken all of the ice out of the freezer to make a snow fort. I remembered the hand on my shoulder as I stared confused at the small pile of ice slumping in the sunlight, the dawning understanding that our cunning cannot always overcome the passage of time and the changing of the seasons.
There had been rumors about what had caused the catabolism, that this was just a great cosmic season that we had not yet understood, that it had been caused by a scientist, that it had been the only way to save the world from imminent destruction. Whatever the reasons, there had been reasons, and those reasons were greater than me and my need to live in a world that I could understand, where power could be something I could hold over others as had been my destiny in the old world.
I tore the pieces of paper apart. I refused to think or speak about what the men had said inside the walls of that terrible place. Instead, I turned, I pointed at the walls, the only stable thing in my field of vision, and I screamed. I screamed because I wanted that world back, I screamed because it scared me, but I also screamed because this was my moment, and I took it against all the temptation the old powers could offer me. I could not speak against them, but I could point and scream.
The air came rushing at my back, and then the horde began rushing past me like leaves on the wind, and then they were like the ocean, like the tide.
I watched men behind the walls invoke their munitions.
And then I saw, with terrible, relentless clarity. I saw the skyskippers diving between their airships, my beast-riding siblings, half naked blood-bike warriors, this-plane-that-plane dancers in their shawls and scarves, and others who will not let themselves be written about, bringing everything they had against the grey rectangle.
None of the horde, despite their numbers, had ever encountered ammunition before, let alone had its flesh-destroying power used against them. I had memories of ammunition, of seeing it being used before, but nothing could prepare me for what I witnessed on that day.
Entire bands were annihilated in single explosions, the bodies of people who were once loved and touched and who had destinies transformed in a flash into something too terrible to look upon. Airships fell from the sky, skyskippers tore apart screaming.
There are many things that I saw that day that I wish I could forget, but that day is a part of me. For all of the horrible things that happened, I am glad, because I witnessed the old powers at their most baleful, I watched them unleash their brutality against my siblings threatening time and future itself, and I watched that brutality fail in the face of the new wonders.
We did not leave any of the men who had summoned the old powers alive. Their blood and skulls were given to the blood-bike riders, who bound their souls to power their bikes. The papers full of numbers were burned, ashes scattered to the winds, the computers broken down and reconfigured by circuitwrights. The airships broke their walls into piles of rubble, and my siblings let their herds trample and graze the rubble until there were no stones. When we left that place nothing remained of the men or their work, except for the memorials to our dead, and the sprouting orchard which the herd had left in their wake.
Doubtless there are other writings and numbers which keep the debts of our Great Ones, and other writings and figures which tell how more such places could be built. I am sure that there are people out there who want to find these writings to bring back the old ways. Yet understanding such a thing would require someone to be able to read. This is why I have written this story down, because I wanted you to find it first.
If you can read this, then you are the enemy. You cannot see or know the world that that has come, and so you might be tempted to bring back the ways of the old world. Understand that we will give our last dying breath to stop you. We will give no warning, there will be no hesitating or negotiating, we will destroy you as we destroyed the others. This is your warning. The old powers cannot protect you.
This story also appears in A Beautiful Resistance: Everything We Already Are
is a practicing pagan, teacher, writer and over-thinker living in Portland, Oregon, where he cultivates relationships with Celtic deities, local land spirits, and human beings.