Gatherer of Souls, by Lorna Smithers
It was late in winter, around this time of year I suppose, that I uttered the words which changed my life.
I was walking home from a shift at work. My path led from the urban nightmare of downtown Seattle up and over tree-crowded hills to what was my favorite part of the journey. After the crest of the hill, the walk was quieter, more verdant, much more like the forest it once was rather than the city others had decided it must be. Just a few blocks from my home, the view changed. I could see the Cascade Mountains catching the last rose-and-gold light of the setting sun behind me, with the dark waters of Lake Washington beneath them as abyss.
It’s then I said it. I’m not sure I knew what I was thinking; I know for certain I didn’t understand the implications. It was just a sense, a desire, one deeper than I fathomed bubbling up in whimsical words I spoke aloud.
“I wish gods were really real, because it’d be fun to do stuff for them.”
Everything I am now, everything I’ve done, all the places I’ve visited since, every word I’ve subsequently written, and even the very existence of Gods&Radicals itself, sprung from those rather silly, fateful words.
Someone was listening.
Since then, I’ve met quite a few others with similar experiences, many of whom write for Gods&Radicals Press. Meeting others made me feel not so crazy as the visions flooded my skull, upended my life, sent me on reckless pilgrimages to sacred sites, and eventually a continent and an ocean away from where I uttered those words. Because, as it turned out, others had also wanted gods to be real, wanted to do things for them, and learned (to their wonder and sometimes terror), that they were really real.
One of the people I met early on was Lorna Smithers. We didn’t actually meet in person for a long time; instead, we found each others’ writing, saw that the other was having awfully similar experiences with land spirits and gods we’d previously thought were long-dead (if they ever existed at all). Since then, Lorna’s work has become the largest influence on my own relationship to the unseen and the gods who dwell there.
Maybe by now you’re about to stop reading and are feeling a bit unsettled. Maybe the idea of really-real (not just archetypal or symbolic or whatever) gods is a bit unsettling to you, or maybe you’re unsettled that I’m convinced they are. If you’re still reading and feeling unsettled, I should tell you that Lorna has a new book, Gatherer of Souls, and it’s quite an unsettling book.
Gatherer of Souls is dedicated to Gwyn Ap Nudd, a god I’ve encountered once. He’s chill moonlight filtered through leafless branches, that light and that shadow over your body, and you’re not sure by maybe those branches aren’t trees but maybe antlers, and anyway you’re inside and there’s no moonlight at all. Gods do that, the gods of the old Brythonic peoples and their ancestors even more so, but Gwyn feels even older still.
Much of Gatherer of Souls is about how unsettlingly old Gwyn Ap Nudd actually is, how far back beyond what we think of as the time of gods he existed, before the time the realms of the dead, the realms of the living, and the realms of the not-yet-born were ever seen as separate. Chasing the chaser into his myths, hunting with the hunter into the place from which dreams and reality are both born, Lorna leads the reader into the wet caverns below the coal mines, across the ice fields long-since melted into sea, into a time long before witch-blood and wolf-blood could ever be stolen to build Empire.
As with her other books (Enchanting the Shadowlands and The Broken Cauldron), Gatherer of Souls seems at first to be an innocuous collection of prose and poems. Part of Lorna’s particular magic (and her path as an awenydd), however, is to lull the reader into a serene sense of wonder and familiarity before moving the earth beneath their feet. Like walking through a forest shrouded in mist, her narrative voice feels safe, close, quiet, but veils from your sight until it is time the unearthly truths she wants to show you.
While the words which convey them are gorgeous, these aren’t nice truths, nor pretty. A dark red thread runs through the book: stolen life of witches gathered by a king to found an empire and melt glaciers, the terror of women running through forests and hiding in barns from rapists and soldiers, a man coughing blood from factory-scorched lungs: stories of others whom she reminds us we already know. Our stories, the stories of our ancestors, the stories of those who died to build the world in which we barely survive, waiting for our gods to return.
But that’s part of her trick, you see. Because you haven’t followed Lorna into the mists to chase myths, you’re being followed. You thought you were looking for something, but you’re the one being looked for. You thought hunting for meaning and a god of antlers and ice, but then the mists part and you realise an entirely different hunt is about to begin.
That’s how gods work, by the way. Your call is your reply.
Someone is listening.