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Bloody Hands, Lost Rings, and Speakeasies: Sleep No More Revisited

I like that I look like a slightly shy serial killer here.

(Warning!  Contains some Sleep No More minor spoilers)

I was doing the thing I swore I would never do.  I was already covered in someone else’s blood, there was grave yard dirt in my ballet flats, the taste of tears in my mouth and I was gingerly feeling around a dead goat, getting goat’s hair all over me.  O Hecate.  You and your damned ring quest.

And I, the mistress of your charms,

The close contriver of all harms,

Was never called to bear my part,

Or show the glory of our art? - Hecate, Macbeth, Act 3, Scene 5

 

Previously: I had checked into the McKittrick not once but twice in the last year.  Is that all there is?

My husband, Jow and I were getting ready for the show.  I decided to wear my ritual attire (as pictured) along with my resin crow skull necklace

 and I did my hair up pretty and carefully constructed a made up face that no one would see (or would they?).  I decided to go with Milk & Honey perfume from TAL which I usually use when I'm trying to attract the right thing mixed with a Come to Me perfume oil blend to see what would happen in the name of (occult) science.

Another generally unknown fact: My best form of personal divination is radiomancy which is a sneered upon art form among sneered upon art forms.

So I did some radiomancy for both me and Jow.  I do this by going into my big Spotify playlist and I put it on random and I hit fast forward a few times.  Jow got “Maniac” by Kid Cudi/St. Vincent and I got “Cuts You Up” by Peter Murphy because . . .why should I ever have an easy spiritual experience in life?

 When discussing the fact that Jow is one of the gods' chosen people in general, I tend to call him “Sprinkle Mist” because it’s my way of enviously saying that he’s the gods’ favorite pony.  They just want to braid his hair and feed him carrots and tell him how great everything he does is at all time.  It’s really irritating to watch when your gods treat you like you’re Cadie from Mean Girls and they get to be Ms. Norbury  (“Because I’m a pusher.  I push people.  I pushed my husband into law school.  That was a bust.  I pushed myself into working three jobs.  And now I’m gonna push you because I know you’re smarter than this.”)

Jow had an interesting theory though – that the gods tend to treat us the same way that we treat the people we love.  When Jow loves someone in any capacity, he’s the first to tell you how pretty your hair is and to listen sympathetically without judgement to whatever shit show you’re currently engaging in.  Me?  I’m a pusher, Cadie.  I don’t bother pushing people I don’t care about, it’s not worth the time, effort and energy on my part.  I have a reality television addiction to see to.  If I really love you, I will get all Lady MacBeth on your ass faster than you can say “Spot”.

 Strange omens aside, we try to use Sleep No More as an initiatory experience for ourselves because Occultists/Witches aren’t always great at theater in modern practice.  A sad but true fact.  Oh we can create lovely rituals that are full of magic and wonder but it loses something for me in ambiance because it happens in someone’s living room and not a cool Witches’ Workroom.  Hey, we can't all be great at everything.  You're probably a better Witch than a set designer and that's more than okay.

We try not to go into Sleep No More with specific expectations but let’s be real, we always have a mental checklist of things we want to see.  For me it was to actually sit down at the Manderley, drink some champagne, go through the “Narnia” closet (because, come on) and get involved in some Witch business.

Miraculous Event The First: We got street parking for free.  My car was there when we returned.  We didn’t get any tickets.

We made our way to the Manderley where Jow bought me a champagne St. Germain cocktail (served in my favorite kind of champagne glassthe coupe always makes me feel like I'm in an old movie) and we managed to snag one of the only four person tables to sit at.  In omnia paratus! We toasted.  We board the elevator and I dawdle to be the last one off.  The speech that the elevator operator/taxidermist gives has changed some which is good, it discourages a lot of the bad behavior that happened at my last visit.  I found the crowd to be a lot more like the crowd was for my first visit – polite, respectful and looking for wonder.  I managed to be the last one off and I dragged my feet as much as possible and stepped off.  As I left, the elevator operator simply said, “Oh.”  Like I missed something.  I was all, Nooooooooooooo!  Secret sixth floor outing!  And then I thought, cheeky devil.  I don’t think he had any intentions of ever letting me see the sixth floor.

I ran downstairs to the ballroom and immediately caught the Bald Witch.  Perfect!  I had witchy intentions for the evening anyway.  It was just myself and a boy in plaid following her and she took off quickly with me and Plaid following where I immediately proceeded to trip and fall flat on my hands in an incredibly classy manner.  I think BW and Plaid felt bad because they could hear me fall (though I didn’t make a peep!) and get back up as quickly as I could as they slowed down.  For me, I knew this was going to be a rough experience for me spiritually/emotionally right there.  But as soon as we were in the McKittrick again, I felt that thrill of excitement and I had enough adrenaline running through me to make me bounce from my fall as if I were twenty again.

BW took me into her dressing room and stared at me right into my eyes while I tried not to fidget.  The staring thing never stops disquieting me, btw.  Even though I did my share of theater class in college and have been to Sleep No More a good deal of times.  The eyes really are the windows to one’s soul and I still feel apprehensive about someone window shopping into mine.  She ran my thumb slowly across the back of her ear where her head was shaved and I stood as quietly (but not wanting to convey fear either because reading your body language is a key part of what they do.  I mean I was totes scared but I didn’t want her to stop) as I could.  It was sexy and terrifying. She then ferried us to the Blood Orgy Rave/Prophecy scene.

It was there I met Hecate.  I fell immediately under Zhauna Franks‘ spell.  I had only seen Careena before and Zhauna is . . .so different.  Blond for one.  Imagine Marilyn Monroe (as she really was, not as she was in movies) as a goddess of Witches and that’s how it was.  She flirted, she played but she had a razor’s edge underneath her and an obvious intelligence about her.  When she was playful, it was so genuine and sincere that it made her performance that much more nuanced to me because it also made her sharpness that much sharper.  I remember thinking, this is what the Motherhood stage could look like without children.  Beautiful, sharp and terrifying.  Aware of one’s own power and beauty with enough cunning to use it.   

At the Blood Orgy Rave, I had always watched the witches cavorting because it’s sexy and uncomfortable and there’s a lot of naked bits being paraded around.  For the first time, I watched Hecate.  The way she inhaled her breath, the way she held her arms reminded me that once dance and witchcraft were not so far apart from each other.  While doing actual magick was likely not her intention per se, it was happening anyway.  I could See the energy swirling around her as she held her arms upraised and I remember being so utterly entranced to the experience.  She gave this blood chilling cry (not quite a scream, not quite a song) and the way she held herself at her seat, it was very clear she was in charge of everything that would happen that night from witches to MacBeths to DeWinters.  She was so commanding and her smile was so blinding and brilliant that while I knew there were sexy hijinx and prophesy going on right behind me, I just couldn’t look away.  After, she commanded Sexy Witch (even though the prophesy was being literally torn from her  and she screamed in pain as though she was giving labor which made the hair on the back of my neck stand up) to continue dancing even though it was clear that it might kill her until Hecate sent her on her way.  It was ruthless and brutal and beautiful to watch.

Hecate sat at her table, first to have a meeting with Agnes who drank the possibly poisoned wine that Hecate poured her and then drank Hecate’s also possibly poisoned wine as Hecate commanded.  When Agnes started sobbing and humiliating herself in other ways to try to win Hecate’s favor, Hecate dispassionately collected her tears.  When Agnes was sent on her way, Hecate stood up.  I knew it was to go to her secret lair so I followed her with two other ghost-girls (the audience all wears the same ghost masks so no one ever really knows who anyone else is).  One ghost-girl was especially bold and pushy but Hecate held out her hand and shook her head disapprovingly and wagged her finger at the bold ghost-girl while smiling brightly.  To remind the bold ghost girl that she didn't call the shots, Hecate did, Hecate snatched up the other ghost-girl to be taken into her secret room.  

I knew from past experience that we couldn’t follow her inside (the door was locked), so I followed Agnes for long enough to go through the Narnia wardrobe (score!) which was sometimes locked and sometimes unlocked.

I saw Hecate again and followed her back to her lair.   Hecate ate raw meat from a locked container and coughed up a ring from it as delicately as a cat coughing up a hair ball and gave it to her chosen ghost-girl.  She then took the stage in her lair and proceeded to give her performance to Is That All There Is?

What I hadn’t said in my previous post about that particular song is that I’ve known it for it for a very long time.  My dad had gotten a cassette copy of a benefit that (at the time) It Girls had done with AT&T to support The Walden Woods Project.  My dad had worked for AT&T for most of his life, so the album was probably a freebie of some kind.  Sandra Bernhart was more known as a comedienne and for her work on Roseanne at the time but she performed “Is That All There Is?” for the benefit.  She has a surprisingly lovely and strong voice and adds a really sardonic edge to the song.

It was the first time I had heard the song.  I was a teenager at the time, so it really stuck with me and likely shaped me in ways that I’m only now just starting to understand.  As a teen, I thought, haha yeah!  Life sucks!  This song Gets It!  As a twentysomething, I thought, It all ends the same anyway so damnit if I’m not going to have as much of a party as possible on my way out.  Another round of tequila, please!  As a thirtysomething, I thought more of  the line, ‘And I thought I would die – but I didn’t.’

There have been so many times in my life where that line has been far more true than I would ever want to think about.  It’s so painfully true.  It’s not just about how badly life can suck or the nihilist view that we’re all dying anyway so screw it.  Every time you thought you would die but didn’t, it’s a starkly raw and beautiful moment in your life that gets etched into your bones.  The despair, the fear, the joy, the sadness, the loss, the grace, the love – all wrapped up in that resolute moment you chose to keep dancing not in spite but because of what happened to you.

I thought I would die – but I didn’t.

I was thinking about all these things as I watched Hecate, Queen of the Witches morph from all of those life change moments, sometimes laughing, sometimes smiling sardonically, sometimes filled with joy, sometimes crying her heart out only to laugh again and something inside me just broke.

Everything behind this little song has been on constant repeat in a tiny voice in the back of my head last year.  On sleepless nights.  When my uncle was slowly dying.  When I was worried about the bills.  When there was a moment of undiluted joy.  When something stupid made me laugh.  When I felt truly present in a moment.

Is that all there is, is that all there is/ If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing/ Break out the booze and have a ball . . .

And I just started sobbing behind my mask.  My hand unconsciously clutched at my crow skull necklace and the other circled around my stomach.  It was too loud for anyone to hear me.  I was masked and it was too dark for anyone to see me.  I could be completely in the moment in this sea of strangers.  I turned my face from Hecate and brushed the tears from under my mask as surreptitiously as I could.  I felt wrung dry and completely uninterested in any coveted "one on ones"  with Hecate or her witches.  I wanted to be a ghost in the sea of ghosts, following quietly behind the supernatural beings so I could process.

My gods and spirits and damned Peter Murphy had other ideas.

Hecate immediately zeroed in on me as she sashayed to the other side of her lair.  She put her hand on my shoulder, as if to give me comfort for a moment and I relaxed under her hand.  As soon as she felt me relax, she got very close in my face and laughed mockingly.  My shoulders slumped.  If I’m being completely honest, even though I didn’t think she was Drawing Down per se , my exact thought was, The gods can be such assholes, man.  But I also knew that S/she was looking to see what I would do.  I straightened my shoulders resolutely and looked her dead in the face, my gaze steady and resolute.  

She grabbed my hand and led me to her secret lair door and told me to wait outside it as she had something for me.

I’m not going to lie, given my own personal journey for the evening, I completely and wholly expected to be left outside the door for at least twenty minutes until I saw her doing something else.  I expected to be left to die.  Still, I waited.  Only a moment later, she came for me.

She drew me into her private parlor and immediately took off my mask.  I was scared down to my toes because being unmasked in the McKittrick feels like taking off your clothes in the middle of a church, but I was also grinning like a lunatic.  I wondered if my make up was smeared from crying and from sweat.  She got very close to me and touched my face where the tears had been.  She then gently pulled underneath my eyes somewhat hopefully, possibly hoping to collect more tears.  When there were none, she opened my mouth and poured tears from a vial onto my tongue.  I swallowed obediently.  

She started telling me a fairy tale about a ship at sea, an arrogant boy and a lost ring.  She spun me around and dragged me into a pitch black room while I was off kilter.  She told the story while my breaths came in gasps and my heart raced in terror and excitement, sometimes whispering in my ear, sometimes howling it from a few feet away.  While she was built like a dancer (tiny, slight, delicate, much smaller than me), she would throw me around this pitch black room like a ragdoll, letting my body thump against the walls.  

She put my hand to one of the walls which felt like grass, explaining how this foolish, arrogant boy had lost her ring.  I tried vainly to find it in the grass even though I logically knew from previous research that it wasn’t there.  She spun me again and hissed in my ear, Find me my ring.  She put my mask back on me and pushed me out into the Witches' Workroom.   

I stood there, gasping for a moment while a stewart (the black masked attendants who are there to make sure we don’t step too out of line) watched covertly.

My shoulders slumped again.  My exact thought was, The  ring quest?!!!??!!!!!  Is she serious?!!!  WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO TELL ME, GODS?

The Ring Quest, in case you’re not familiar, is the Holy Grail of quests in the McKittrick.  Not in a good way.  Is it totally possible to complete?  Yes.  Are you roughly about as likely to complete it as you are likely to win the lottery or get struck by lightening?  Yes.

The ring is hidden somewhere in the McKittrick.  They move it every night.  The McKittrick is roughly the size of two huge warehouses.  The ring is the size of an actual ring for your hand.  Vaya con dios, Sport!

Previously, I swore never to look for the ring.  It seemed like a colossal waste of time to me where you could be eating purloined candy and frolicking with witches.  Also, from what I had gathered from my research, if you did find the ring, you’d be given another even more impossible quest which would make me flip a table.  Thanks, but no thanks!

I always thought my own personal Hecate (as in my personal view of the goddess/the aspect I tended to see – Hinduism goes more deeply into the subject, it’s not just UPG - cakes) would look and act more like Careena, but I was rapidly coming to see that for reasons only known to my spirits/gods, Zhauna’s version was the one ringing true for me.

I simmered down and caught my breath.  I dully tried to consider what it could possibly mean to me on personal spiritual level  (the game within the game for me and Jow at the McKittrick) that I would be sent on a quest like this.  Even if I were able to complete it, I knew I would only be sent on a much harder quest.

Later, when recounting my tale to Jow over Indian food, he remarked, “So your reward for completing really difficult work is to be given even more difficult work?”   I closed my eyes and briefly considered dashing my brains out against the restaurant's sweets display because, oh I don’t know, it’s only been the story of my entire life.  Writing to be published while still being true to myself, the uphill battle of running a woman-fronted convention that did its best to be sensitive to issues in the LBGT community, PoC community, class issues, sexual minorities, issues for people with physical challenges and spirituality issues while still keeping my focus on the convention being a fun Neo-Victorian/Steampunk con, leaving corporate to help raise other people’s children and run a small business as an artisan.  Haha, gods and spirits!  You are teh hilar!

But I know now (like right now) that it’s true.  It will only get harder.  It’s what success breeds.  It means people recognizing me in public for my work which means I need to not look a mess in public/not act like a feral animal and push past my social anxiety when interacting, it means pushing myself to not listen to my inner critics and work harder to get where I'm trying to go, it means dealing with people who are critical to what I say and do.  The better you do, the harder you have to work in artistic pursuits.  

There are very few actual overnight successes if any.  And if you are successful then generally it’s expected that your future work should be even more successful.  Which . . .no pressure.

However.  Hecate is compelling.  And while my brain was spinning too much to process all this in the actual moment, I knew I was meant to go on the quest as it was presented to me.  So I started looking.  I went to floors I would usually avoid; the hospital with its torn up padded cell and wet clothes, the smell of iodine in the air, the cemetery with its creepy baby buggy, the maze in the woods with the taxidermed goat.  

In my search, I saw scenes with people I had never followed, but I was always looking, pushing myself to look places I would never look.  Sticking my hands into dark fountains feeling their algae-ish bottoms, plunging my hands into salt cellars, unsure what was under the salt and feeling up the goat.

(Side note:  I hate putting my hands into things.  Like, I never liked finger painting as a child, making meatloaf is gross, etc.  I’ll do those things when the occasion calls for it but I hate it and I’ll go out of my way to avoid it)

 

I Picked up everything I came across and shook bottles and boxes, listening for a tiny clink clink sound so I knew if I needed to investigate further, opening drawers and teapots.  

The stewarts watched me wearily, but I was always very careful and very gentle as well as  mindful of putting everything back exactly as I found it.  After a little while, they seemed to know what I was doing.   Sometimes, I would actually catch them talking on their walkies as I was entering a room though they would fall silent quickly.  I didn’t know if they were talking about me (likely not) but I wanted to shout, HOTTER OR COLDER?  FOR GODS' SAKE, I JUST NEED A HINT!

Weirdly, during my search, I would wind up exactly where I needed to be right before a big scene would happen and I would be in front of the scene with the best vantage to watch it.   It was always completely by accident because I don’t know the layout/patterns of the McKittrick/the actors very well yet.  I would watch and then push my way to the back of the room to keep ransacking whatever I was working on.  

I started to get to that trance/dream like place where I couldn’t tell where I was going anymore or what floor I was on or where I had been.  I was beyond worn out, I barely sat at all during the three hours of the performance but I was outside of myself by then.  Searching and searching.

I wearily made my way to another floor and was methodically ransacking a room where I saw Jow for the first time since the elevator.  In true Jow form, he was blithely eating candy alone in the candy shop, oblivious to everything.  I heard the unmistakable thump of the Blood Orgy/Prophecy music start.

Instinctively I knew he had yet (still!) to make it to the Blood Orgy Prophecy or to see Hecate, both of which he desperately wanted.  I sighed to myself, contemplating if I should take a break from my own quest to help my hapless husband.  And, if I'm being completely honest, I was afraid to see Hecate again with my quest unfufilled.   Still.

Jow wandered out of the candy shop and I impatiently tapped his arm, startling him.   He recognized me in the dim lighting by my necklace and I gestured for him to follow me, pointing up to the music.  I could tell he was excited but even so, he almost wandered off course to another scene if I didn’t tap him again, harder this time to get him to focus.   He complied and we found ourselves at the front of the Blood Orgy Prophecy.  

was glad to get to see it up close and personally (they change it up a lot too so I was glad to get to watch the scene directly instead of having my back to it).  Also, in the name of full disclosure, I knew Hecate couldn’t see me directly.  We both got sprayed with blood and it was intense as it always is.  

I love how they portrayed themselves as a coven, the way the three Witches (Sexy Witch, Bald Witch and Boy Witch) held each other after the Prophecy had been made, covered in blood and sweat and love for each other.  I left Jow to resume his own adventures and for me to resume mine.

I followed the Bald Witch again and she chose me to wash her back in the Witches' Work Room.  I did so carefully and gently, wrung out myself, too exhausted to do anything but do as I was bade.  I wandered off after to continue my quest.  

After a time, I found myself in the hotel lobby again and Agnes dropped a key.  Usually keys have to be carefully earned and finding what they’re attached to is a difficult quest.  It was a hotel key so I wasn’t even sure if it belonged to anything but she didn’t pick it up.  I couldn’t resist the opportunity so I picked it up quickly when she left.  I saw Jow again and snagged him.  I held up the brass key and the circular brass number attached to it (99) up to the light so he could see what I was trying to do.  He nodded.  We start looking in the hotel lobby to try to figure out where it went into.  We were attempting to get behind the hotel lobby desk when we noticed the hotel phone was working.

 Most phones only occasionally work and ring now (they used to always be on, I believe).  There was a book of  phone numbers with symbols drawn in it.  We started going through it and tried a bunch of different phone numbers while scanning for more locks to try.  It felt like only a moment but time stops working correctly there, so who knows.  

We started to be herded for the final scene (which I had seen already several times).  I had nothing left in me and I wasn’t sure since it was a dropped key if I would be allowed to keep it anyway so I grabbed the Porter’s arm.  I could tell he was a little surprised but he was standing with Catherine and they both held their hands out simultaneously and I dropped the key into their waiting hands and patted his arm.

Miracle the Second: Jow and I were able to get to the Mandelay before everyone and got the same four person table by the stage.  We listened to a few songs and I visited with the fortune teller, Imogen.  It was late, I was the last person she would see for the night.  I drew two cards.  She turned over the card.  Devil.  She started to explain and I waved away the standard “don’t freak out” line, explaining usually I’m the reader vs the readee.  She nodded and turned the second card.  The Tower.  We stared at each other for a moment and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry because statistically (as per Imogen well), that is a very unlikely combination, especially since I cut the deck and shuffled and it was a two card reading.  We pondered out loud together and she shared some secrets of her own.  Kindred spirits recognizing each other.  We kissed each other on the cheek and I drank some water at my table and my exhausted brain tried to make sense of the whole experience.

 We stayed for the end of the set and then made our way home, back to New Jersey, telling each other our tales.

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Tagged in: hecate ritual theater UPG
Deborah Castellano is featured in the 2015 Llewellyn Herbal Almanac. She is a frequent contributor to Occult/Pagan sources such as Witchvox, PaganSquare and Witches&Pagans magazine.

Deborah's book, The Arte of Glamour is available for purchase on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

Her craft shop, The Mermaid and The Crow (www.mermaidandcrow.com) specializes in Hand-spun hand-dyed yarn in luxe fibers, euphorically scented mason jar beeswax candles, tempting small batch ritual oils, Dream Ambassadors (tiny sheep to help you sleep!), lofty unique nuno felted scarves, airy hand painted silk chiffon scarves and more.

Her Craft shop, The Glamoury Apothecary (www.etsy.com/shop/glamouryapothecary) specializes in handcrafted Occult and Magical items such as gods and goddesses vigil candles, loose incense and hand rolled chime candles.

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