One Autumn night, two close encounters. Hunter in the heavens, hunted on the earth:
Zeus, Poseidon, and Hermes loved king Hyrieus so much they provided him an heir by urinating on a bull hide and burying it. Out of the piss and dust, Orion was born. He became a great hunter. So great was Orion, in fact, that he ended up the world’s leading constellation, aligner of the pyramids, 1980’s motion picture company, and the place from which the ancient aliens came to inspire humanity to do all the good things humans have ever done—or so say the alien people.
In November, senior year of college, during that blissful season between midterms and finals, Marjorie and I spent our weekend nights driving around in the toolie bushes surrounding Nashville trying to get lost. Miraculously, before cell phones, before GPS, we always managed to find our way home. The same roads that all led to Rome apparently also led to either West End Ave. or 21st St., downtown, and Vanderbilt University.
Marjorie was a Yankee and I a SoCal girl—as close to aliens as two blondes in a late model beige Ford Taurus could be.
Once, we found our way to a road that ended in a stream. No warning. No signs. Just road, road, road: stream. Marjorie got out of the car to take a picture. While she found the best angle, I watched silhouetted figures gather on the wide porch of a house at the top of a steep hill overlooking the road. “Um, Marjorie?” I gestured with my chin to the crowd.
She looked up from her camera. “I think we ought to leave.”
I laughed and said too loudly, “They think we’re revenuers come to bust up their still.”
Marjorie gave me an evil look.
We jumped in the car and headed for what we thought might be home. Two of the silhouettes in a white truck chased us back to the freeway.
Tonight we are on Natchez Trace. It is near midnight. It is warm. Both our windows are rolled down. We are listening to Delilah at Night.
Natchez Trace is a Native American trail turned Civil War marching path, turned country run route for motorcyclists and Sunday drive for leaf-peepers come Autumn. Tonight it is our way home. We’ve been out since seven. We’ve had no real adventures. We’ve been passing the same yawn back and forth for an hour.
There are no homes on the trace, no civilization, no lights, not even on the horizon.
Marjorie stops the car in the middle of the road, turns off the headlights, clicks off the radio, and whispers, “Deer.” I am startled. Marjorie is normally a timid, rules is rules kind of girl.
She slides out of the car and leaves her door open. I do the same and walk to the rear of the car to stand beside her. She is silent and I am silent. There is no moon. This is the only time I have ever lived the cliche of not being able to see my hand in front of my face, not that I tried. Marjorie is just still so I am just still.
From our right, the sound of clomping in soft grass and fallen leaves. The clomping comes closer and turns into clopping as hooves hit asphalt. There are two deer walking towards us, in front of us, close enough I could touch them. Their scent surrounds us like a ripe, musky fog.
The deer stop in front of us. Whether doe or bucks or one of each I cannot tell. The one leading the other turns his head towards me, or so I assume. He breathes in long then chuffs. Between sniff and chuff a tense second. Who would hurt whom? Respect or a hoof in the bread basket?
The deer move on. Clopping turns to clomping again. We are alone on the road.
Marjorie turns her head to the west. I turn my head to the west. Orion has been watching us. His boots rest on the horizon. His head reaches the apex of the dome of the sky. His belt is the center of all creation. We are an interruption to his deer hunt or we, ourselves, are his quarry and the deer were to lure us from our car.
I try hard not even to think the word, “awesome.” As a SoCal, kinda valley girl, I grew up saying it so much that it didn’t mean much anymore. To think “awesome” now will surely bring his celestial boot down on my terrestrial head. “Awe-inspiring,” I think. “Awe-full.” “Awful,” I think and I know that is right. Awful. Awful and real, beautiful and terrifying.
A tense moment passes between us. Who would hurt whom? Worship or an arrow through the offending eye? I hold my breath. My world holds its breath also.
Orion once bragged he could and would kill all the beasts of the earth. Gaia took unkindly to this. She killed him with the single strike of a divinely appointed scorpion. Both Orion and the scorpion were set in the heavens afterward, forever in opposition. When Orion sets, the scorpion rises. When the scorpion sets, Orion rules the sky just as he does this night—unquestionably. The scorpion, tail un-barbed, has scuttled back under the earth. All the beasts are once again his prey and I, despite my newly acquired education, occasional bravado, and first forays into adulthood, am one of those beasts. I feel the kind of fear that begets religion—the kind of fear that brings humanity closer to god.
Marjorie gets back into the car. I follow. We do not speak again until the orange streetlights signal home.
Ancient Greek prayer is formulaic. First the hail and epithets. Let the gods or heroes know who they are. They haven’t forgotten, but you need the reminder.
Second, cite precedence. Remind the gods or heroes how they have helped you in the past, or how they have helped others in similar situations. They haven’t forgotten, but you need the reminder.
Third, supplication: State your desire. Be clear and specific. Add caveats if necessary. The gods are not evil genies, but they dabble in irony from time to time.
Fourth: make an offering: You do not approach Greek gods or heroes empty-handed. Either make an offering in the moment such as wine, milk, honey, incense, etc., or promise an offering upon receipt of your request. Do not break promises to the gods. Myth is riddled with the eyeless sockets and cursed families of those who have.
Hail Orion! Master Huntsman. Swift. Stealthy. Merciless in the kill. You have never helped me personally, but you have inspired a lot of speculation in a lot of cultures for lots of years, and that’s what I’m after. Make me speculate upon the nature of religion and keep me speculating until the day I die. Make me feel small yet significant. Give me the dignity and courage of deer in the night. I offer you words–words, words, and veneration. Esto (amen).`