Death and Foxes
By Martin J. Manco
This past July, Morpheus Renard Brack arrived at his second of three years of study to become an accredited wizard at New World Magischola. He was a member of the prestigious House Croatan, founded by Virginia Dare and symbolized by the color orange and the turtle. Morpheus was close with other members of the house, even when they might have otherwise conflicted (one housemate was toying with dark magic and violently hated vampires, while several others were from old wizard families, and Morpheus was of mixed heritage and eager to meet and befriend various cryptid species). He shifted between easygoing and meganerd… and between human and fox and octopus and eventually cardinal. You see, Morpheus was a nagual, an animal shapeshifter from Mesoamerican myth, and he had only recently met his birth mother because she had left him with his mundane lecturer father and retreated to the wilderness to live as a fox. After a bad experience the first time he shapeshifted at a magical school hidden in the deserts and canyons of the Southwest, Morpheus was a bit shy and hid the fact that he was a shapeshifter. This also granted him some other opportunities for mischief and rebellion, but he had a really difficult time understanding other humans, made all the more confusing by his easy rapport with many dangerous and wild magical creatures. This year, however, after a summer spent surfing and visiting mermaids off the West Coast, Morpheus planned to “come out of the closet” as a nagual.
The interesting part is that I am Morpheus.
A recent kickstarter was wildly successful, allowing game designers to develop a live action role-playing event that lasted four long weekends during the summer. It would be held at the University of Richmond, which has some beautiful architecture alongside a lake, with a wooded area, a Greek amphitheater, and sorority cottages used for the five Houses. I jumped at the opportunity to sign up for this event, and I was excited to get the bare bones of the character (along with a wizardly acceptance letter in the mail) as the months passed and it got closer and closer to my weekend. However, for a short time, I wondered if I’d be able to make it at all.
My grandmother passed away a week and a half or so before my trip to Virginia. She had lived through a long struggle with breathing difficulties, confusion about what was going on around her, decreased mobility, many trips back and forth from the hospital for various brushes with death, and suffering the losses of her sister and my grandfather over the last few years. I was relieved she was no longer in pain or confused, and I had trouble working up tears at the loss, but something felt off despite my dry eyes. It seemed like the vivacious, funny lady who had been my favorite relative should still have been around. She had watched my sister and me tear up paper towels and napkins to mix them as imaginary spaghetti in her cooking pots on the floor of her kitchen when we were little; bought me books and introduced me to the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the King and I, and the Sound of Music; repeatedly bemoaned my love of bats; was happy when I compared her to Storm from the X-men because they both had white hair; and always shared a playful wink with me. To not have her physically here anymore, even if I do believe she is with us in spirit, was a shock. Then came the arrangements for the funeral mass and the interment ceremony, and the moment when I offered to skip New World Magischola to help out. Fortunately, I was assured that wasn’t necessary. The interment ceremony happened before I left, so I got to say goodbye as my grandmother’s ashes were sealed with my grandfather’s.
I’d decided to take the train down to Richmond to get a sort of “Platform 9 & ¾” experience. It turns out that on hot summer days, train tracks can melt or buckle when a great deal of weight speeds by them, so over an hour was added to my trip as the train practically crawled through Virginia, making me late. I finally arrived, rushed from the station to campus, rapidly got settled in, briefly met my suitemates, and ran off to the welcome ceremonies. There I was coached on matters from the respectful (how to address or refer to people when I wasn’t sure of their gender), to the practical (using the American Sign Language applause rather than clapping so that people could make announcements without being interrupted) to the magical. That last category included how to cast spells in the game system and (more importantly) how to react to spells cast at one, and how to identify and shape the qualities of magical creatures (the special ability of cryptozoologists). I picked up my robes and a light-up, specially crafted wand, and was introduced to my housemates. We discussed the character of House Croatan and how we wanted to develop it. We were adamant about not wanting to be the “Slytherin” of New World Magischola, nor did we want to be seen as the snobby house. Instead, we focused on treating each other as family… sometimes fractious, but willing to stand together against greater threats… and treating others to hospitality and assistance/recognition for their accomplishments. Finally, it was time to begin.
Over the next three days, I lived in the dorms, looked forward to meals not only for the wide array of food but for the amusing announcements the chancellor was forced to read, and attended classes in Cryptozoology, Healing Magic, Magical Combat and Defense, Ethics and Theory of Magic, and Herbology. I attended clubs (sadly, I never made it to the Wyvern Riding Club, but the Prismatic Ring… a.k.a. the campus GLBTQA society was a lot of fun, and I had my tea leavings read by three astromancers). I got to encounter scarecrows, fairies, hobs, unicorns, satyrs, vampires, other nagualli, and ghosts. I was enchanted and charmed and empowered. I received a care package from my character’s mother, which brought tears to my eyes for no reason other than the fact that Morpheus missed her fiercely despite her absence from his early life. I did a lot of homework and attempted to study, though things were remarkably busy. New members of House Croatan were welcomed with rituals commemorating the founder’s descent into the Underworld and with the sharing of secrets. Some events, however, stood out.
In an effort to prevent all-out war between wizardly factions and save a flying island from falling, House Croatan mobilized to save the day. Morpheus led a team of Cryptozoologists to form alliances with other nagualli, fey, and cryptids, but they split up to cover more ground. Hearing reports of a fearsome chupacabra on campus, Morpheus rushed (in fox form) to find the creature, using empathic and soul-sharing spells to link the two. The chupacabra, who called themself “I Am,” was confused and frightened… and then a trio of hunters showed up, making things even worse. These hunters had seen I Am attack and poison their little brother before their eyes, and had tracked I Am down for vengeance. Morpheus’ connection to I Am meant that they couldn’t attack because any spells aimed at I Am would be redirected towards Morpheus. Morpheus tried to figure out why I Am had harmed the child in the past, but wasn’t able to find out more except that I Am had been scared. And then Morpheus got too close to the chupacabra for I Am’s comfort, and ended up slashed with foot-long claws across his chest. Physically, the moment was painless, but it seemed excruciating as my character fell to the ground. Fortunately, Morpheus was saved by healing spells from various sources, including the hunters and a golem. With that, the link with I Am was severed, and the chupacabra slain. Morpheus was despondent, since his whole goal of mediating between cryptids and human magi seemed impossible.
There wasn’t time to brood, however. Each of the Houses had to gather at different points across campus to restore the warped energies of the ley lines that crossed campus. Morpheus had to report his failure to the rest of the house, but they were supportive and sympathetic. Morpheus’ vulpine senses and familiarity with cryptids would come in handy, for Virginia Dare had also been a cryptozoologist, and was known for commanding many strange beasts. We formed a ring around the hidden grave of our house ghost, Mo (short for Imogen), a colonial artificer who had been killed by a cannon blast during the American Revolution, and began trying to right the ley lines. The astromancers cried out, however, for they saw a hideous creature with tentacles and eyes and teeth enveloping the ley lines. Mo was harmed by the creature, whom only a few of us could see. One of our House Presidents asked the other astromancers to open Morpheus’ eyes so the monster could be identified. I was wracking my brain for something fitting, considering and discarding various Lovecraftian horrors before settling on something worse: a fallen seraph. As seraphim were spirits of pure, brilliant, burning Truth, this nightmare embodied a sort of insane lie that infected all around it. We could only drive it off, Morpheus said, by righting its impression of the world with our own truths. Together, we united, despite different bloodlines and heritages and class conflicts, to save reality itself.
We succeeded, and even managed to prevent wizardly war without the help of chupacabra, but something was still off. The next day, the young lady playing Mo showed up without her ghostly attire and pale makeup… instead, she introduced herself as a living Professor Imogen. We were shocked and confused, but through some digging (and a helpful vampire) we discovered that all of the ghosts had been brought forward in time from shortly before their deaths! However, there was something wrong with their existence, and they would suffer even more than they had originally if they remained in this time. With heavy hearts, we had to perform another ritual. We each said goodbye to Professor Imogen, each thanking her for all that she shared with us, and watched as she faded to her true place in time. There wasn’t a dry eye in the group.
But life goes on. Morpheus publically came out as a nagual in an announcement mourning the loss of both I Am and the chupacabra’s young victim and remembering both. We had a dance to attend, which was mandatory, and we had to do so with at least one date. I had opted not to arrange a date over Facebook, waiting for someone to appeal to Morpheus naturally. I was surprised when it actually happened, but Morpheus did find himself drawn to a cryptozoology classmate from another house. But were they available, or had they already been asked? The dance was that evening, and time was running out. When Morpheus did work up the courage to ask his classmate out, he was disheartened to find that they were already going to the dance with others. But, a friendship was struck, and we agreed to get to know each other better… and I look forward to exploring the awkwardness and excitement and mutual understanding. Then I found two Herbology classmates to dance with, and (after some handy dance lessons) we had a blast (though Morpheus was disappointed the DJ never played Ylvis’ “the Fox”). I spent the evening dancing with our housemates, friends, and the newly re-ghostly Mo. While House Croatan won second place in the House Cup (no small feat), we also were treated to a dance off, a group of vampires to dance with, the ghosts dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” and a real-life marriage proposal between the players of two of our schoolmates.
In the end, we had a debriefing coaching session and spent some time getting to know each other’s real identities, but also thinking about what our characters and the experience could teach us. Morpheus’ energy and drive to connect with others was heady and wonderful, but he also had a tendency to rush from one thing to the next, avoiding getting too close or spending too much time with anyone. It also drove home how much I struggle to connect with people and form lasting relationships outside of my family. House Croatan continues to keep in touch and support each other via facebook, and there have been a couple meet-ups and trips since then. We are also preparing for a big Yuletide event involving a conflict between mermaid stirpes, the rumors of a monstrous wendigo, and the machinations of a magical corporation, which I will be attending as Morpheus.
Additionally, I found myself thinking about the Harry Potter series (which, by the way, is still considered fictional in the New World Magischola Universe). The theme of life and death is woven throughout the series, from the legend of the Deathly Hallows themselves, to Harry’s unique status as the Boy Who Lived, to Voldemort’s desperate and ultimately futile attempt to defy death even as he sacrificed others, to Harry and Neville’s parents and Snape’s mourning, as well as the deaths of several of the popular characters. In many ways, I gained new perspective with death and my grandmother’s passing during the event, such as through Morpheus’ own near-death experience via chupacabra, the ritual with Mo, the confrontation with the Seraph, and his separation from his mother. For a very liminal character, existing between the human and animal worlds, and crossing the boundaries in his own form of “coming out,” Morpheus was able to deal with those situations in ways that I wouldn’t have imagined on my own. Some of that spirit, that caring and concern for family and friends, that imagination, and that desire to connect with others came from my grandmother, and lives on in me. Come to think of it, grandma’s winks were a little foxy. I wonder if mine are?