• aubreygannredmon

The Forgiveness Chronicles - Part X: Season of the Witch

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

The Forgiveness Chronicles, Continued

Part X: Season of the Witch

"Time is the fire in which we burn." Gene Roddenberry

In June 2014, I had figured that if I could pencil in a time to cry, then I could pencil in a happy hour with my girl friends, all of us working moms, to have a kid-free, man-free, work-free zone one night a month. The first night we met up, Janis had divulged the extent of her affair to the group. Two weeks later, I had rushed out of Costco and had driven to her house to find her in disarray after her husband had found out. Each of us was going through our own juggling act and finding our way.

None of us knew the impact that the first get together had upon our lives until we continued meeting, religiously, month after month. The decision to play with fire had been conceived almost exactly nine months earlier, sitting around a chiminea on Janis’ back deck in the chill of a December evening. We had each taken turns announcing a goal we wanted to accomplish in the coming year. I don’t remember what my goal was (I was just probably praying to the gods to deliver me from toddlerhood with my sanity intact), but Nora’s dream stuck with us all: let’s be ritual fire keepers at a festival in the coming year. I had no idea what that meant, or even what it looked like, but for some reason the idea stuck. We made plans to attend a goddess festival the following year.

I was intrigued and terrified of the concept of a goddess festival. The phrase itself invoked images of wild, long haired women of various ages with face paint and long robes and strange accents. The Lord of the Rings trilogy probably had something to do with that. I looked in the mirror. I was wearing my usual: an old black T-shirt, jeans, and a pair of boots. I rolled my eyes at myself. I did not see a goddess staring back at me. Luckily, I wasn’t the one driving this bus.

Preparing for the festival had been no small feat. Maria was an expert at getting into festivals for free. Most festivals that operated on the fringes of society were modeled around communal values. Those who pledged to volunteer a handful of hours to a particular job had their entrance fees waived. It turned out that fire tending was one of those exemptions, and so we all signed up.

Agate Thornberry was the Master Fire Tender in charge of the fire tending group. The only thing I knew about Agate is what I had heard from Maria and Nora. Maria was very dialed into the fringe festival community, and Nora had a pulse on the metaphysical community. Agate was well known in both circles as an unabashed pagan who had run a metaphysical bookstore, had fire tended at pagan festivals for decades, and was just a witchy woman in general. From her resume, I was willing to bet she knew my herbalist Wise Woman.

Agate passed the message that we all needed to meet at her house one Saturday afternoon for fire tending orientation. I had zero clue what to expect. I drove to this odd street in a heavily forested part of the city, cruising up and down one particular road trying to guess which house was hers; GPS sent me to a tiny shack that looked nothing like a witch’s lair. The places that witches lived were usually easy to spot…if you knew what to look for.

For starters, there would be huge trees, because witches lacked the heart to cut down a tree…unless it became painfully obvious that allowing the tree to live would be detrimental to the surrounding trees. My friend Violet, who now lived in Los Angeles, had wept when her neighbor cut down the beautiful bougainvillea that draped over the patio wall, turning her small outdoor living room into a flower-scented oasis. Next, there would probably be flowers, but landscaping wouldn’t be weeded this late in the season, because dandelions were useful plants and could be tinctured…when the witch got around to it. No witchy premises would be complete without celestial sculptures, statues, or wall hangings somewhere. I was also certain there would be wind chimes, sometimes more wind chimes than the average person found reasonable, because the cacophony of a wind chime collection attracted good spirits and repelled the nasty ones (and to be honest, it probably repelled a lot of undesirable people, too!). A fire pit or chiminea was an absolute must, because the preferable way of releasing anything was to incinerate it. It wouldn’t necessarily be a staple, but a bird bath or some other kind of small fountain was likely; at minimum, I was looking for a water feature in the yard. Herbs would be growing everywhere so that bees and butterflies would be attracted to the yard and the herbs could be harvested for tinctures, teas, and salves during waning moons. Herbs hanging upside down would be a dead ringer, but often, herbs were dried indoors in the dark. A fairy garden could normally be spotted under a tree or in a flower bed; the public passes those cute little fairy garden collections in the local hardware store, thinking that they are such an adorable novelty for kids. Little do they know witches snatch that shit up and construct little fairy villages they believe are truly occupied by tiny, almost invisible fourth-dimensional spirits that they feed and talk to on a regular basis. Old, discarded items were always put to good use, like toilets that have been transformed into flower planters. The faint smell of singed herbs or musky incense is probably permeating the place. But most importantly, anyone entering a witch’s space could feel that the place is different. She had undoubtedly spent the time walking her property and home with some kind of smudge bundle, requesting the spirits to provide protection to the space to prevent unwanted intruders. She probably even put down discreet thresholds of salt, brick or charcoal powder, or randomly placed strange rocks in locations that mark entrance and exit points, causing visitors to subconsciously pause and consider whether they really needed to be there. The small shack lacked all of these features. No trees. No flowers. No weird yard features. No signs of life, really. I turned away without knocking on the door. No self-respecting witch would reside there.

I went back to my car. This was why I left early. I was still early. The late summer sun slipped behind the trees that lined the street, still shining brightly in late afternoon. I looked around. The few other homes on the street had all the trees cleared away from the front of the houses, and the sun beat relentlessly against west facing windows. This was true except for one house. That house sat on the large curve in the road, perched atop high ground like a beacon. No trees had been removed. Large piles of branches sat clustered in a yard of grass that had not been mowed for maybe a month. The small detach garage in front had purple sarongs hanging in the windows like curtains. Purple was the color of the beyond, of psychic power, and often a favorite of witches. There was a metal wind chime by the door with sun and moon cutouts. Just those few telltale signs had been enough. That had to be the spot. I got out of the car and decided to investigate.

I was wearing a sundress and flip flops; in fact, I came to the sudden realization I had worn this exact outfit on my first day visiting the Wise Woman for herbology lessons. Surely it was a sign. I grabbed the basket of cookies and homemade lavender tea I had put together. Witches never arrive empty handed. They always have something they were compelled to make, compile, or pass along with them, unsure of what they will do with the items they have brought, but trusting that the right person and the right use will present itself, as it always inevitably does.

I knocked on the door once and was met with silence. I was ten minutes early, which was right on time, especially for someone in a professional vocation. I have since learned that among pagans, being on time means…well…whenever you show up-ish. Time is something approximate, visceral, and not precise. It is a rebellion against human limitations and a means of embracing the Cosmic no-time. It was an imperfect compromise that could cause a lot of consternation among those firmly rooted in our third dimensional reality.

I looked at the door again. There was a small, rusty, weird-looking knob that seemed to be something that had to be turned. I pinched the knob between two fingers and turned clockwise. There was the faint sound of a rrrrrrreeeeeennnnnnggggg inside the house. A few moments later, I heard footsteps. One door opened, then the screen door. A woman with white and purple hair in a messy asymmetrical chin-length bob flung open the door. She had eyes so brown they were black and she peered at me through a face that showed years of emotional wisdom by the wrinkles that crisscrossed it.

“Yessss?” she asked, sticking her head out of the door and gently stepping out onto the screened porch. Her tiny dream catcher earrings bobbed at her neck. She seemed irritated.

“Hi, I’m Aubrey,” I began, holding out the basket. “I’m here for the fire-tending orientation?”

She only stared for a moment. I was suddenly unsure if I should be there.

She snatched the basket without looking at it, her eyes piercing into mine as they slid down to appraise my body. “You’re not dressed for it,” she began, turning to go back inside while holding the door open for me to follow her. “I need you in work clothes, with gloves, and boots. The bugs are going to eat you alive,” she said, shaking her head. She sat the basket on the kitchen counter in a gesture that was almost a dismissive toss. I instantly recognized the scents in her house: cats, cats, more cats, and lavender incense with maybe some frankincense, coffee, and tobacco.

“I didn’t get the memo,” I said lamely as I tried to study the details of her strange house, following her to a door that passed into a dining room. There were lamps on in this room, and the light from the lamps lit the way through the dim house. Years of academia and indoctrination in the law had me conditioned to conceptualize “orientation” with sitting at a desk and listening to someone drone on about standard operating procedures. Apparently, in the pagan world, orientation was more like getting thrown into the deep end of the pool and learning hands on how to swim to the ladder.

As soon as we reached the doorway past the kitchen, I heard a din of chattering voices. “Hey everyone, this is one of our new fire tenders,” Agate announced. She turned to me briefly. “Go sit over there.”

She pointed to a little window seat covered in cat fur. I went where I was told. I pretended to look through the bag I brought, filled with my leather-bound journal of sketches, notes on rituals performed, and memories recorded in painstaking cursive with colored pens. The women at the table were all older. Not one of them wore a stitch of makeup or said hello to me. A few had made eye contact by way of quick glance. I got the strong impression that I had intruded and that being early in this world was never a good thing. Being early, it seemed, was rude, because the early person is infringing on someone else’s space and time before they had been welcomed. It took for granted that the visitor was a priority to the visited, when in reality, the visitor was there to pay their respects. The exact respect to be paid was whatever reason the visitor had been summoned for. That one brief moment in time highlighted the intense conflict between the world inside of me and the outside world I lived in every day: the world of courts and deadlines and rules codified into dense, single-spaced fine print in thin-paged tomes where failures in punctuality could have dire consequences.

I texted Nora, Janis, and Maria: I’m wearing and sundress and flip flops and she says I am not dressed appropriately or equipped for this orientation…

I had been summoned to learn my duties and obligations as a fire tender underling. There was a hierarchy in the pagan world, and it was very much alive, well, and strong despite all the progressive fist-shaking and bra burning. It was one thing both the Saturnian legal world and the Venusian pagan world had in common. It was the first time in my life I was slapped upside the head with the seniority a pack of crones could wield. I had a subtle understanding of it from my mom and grandmothers, but their way had been far more nuanced. The rank pulled in Agate’s dining room was blatant by contrast.

I pretended not to listen as they bickered about the keynote speaker for the festival. One lady demanded a certain amount of money to come to the festival, an allowance for travel to the area, and wanted to be assured of room and board in a cabin or other comfortable accommodation. Most of the women balked at this.

“She needs to give of her time,” one of them said. “There is an obligation to freely share wisdom with other women.”

A few grumbled in agreement.

One dared to disagree. “We don’t condemn women for writing and publishing books, sharing their knowledge and making a living that way,” one said. “Why would we be the ones to deny financial support and value to another woman? Aren’t we supposed to be empowering women?”

I tended to agree with the lone dissenter, though I pretended to read and acted as though I had heard nothing.

Agate sensed upheaval and decided to preempt it. “We just don’t have it in our budget,” she rasped bluntly. I could feel the women staring at Agate. “We have to make $400 work.”

Someone sighed.

“We’re never going to find someone who will do this for $400,” one of the women scoffed.

The ruse was blown. No one tried justifying the communal virtues of getting a free speaker anymore.

“Maybe Wise Woman will do it,” another voice suggested. “She’s local. She comes every year. She just got back from Ireland, too. She wouldn’t need travel or any of that.”

I could see Agate shaking her head out of the corner of my eye. “No way,” Agate said, pushing away from the table. “She’s gonna find a way to take more than the $400 we offer her.”

Agate and Wise Woman did know one another. I turned to look out the window to hide the scowl on my face, confused by the reluctance to offer Wise Woman the speaking position. I had learned from her myself and thought her knowledge was worth every penny.

The other women said nothing, instead taking their cue to leave. “Next Sunday, 3:00 p.m. at Noni’s,” one of the others said to everyone. I looked towards the table, but none of them seemed to notice me.

One by one they cleared out of the room. Agate disappeared for a few moments. A lanky gray cat, then a very obese calico appeared. Two more cats emerged from the shadows behind stacks of books and began meandering around the table legs, examining the scents left behind by the previous group of visitors.

Agate appeared in the doorway and sunk heavily into her chair at the head of the table. She pulled an ashtray towards her and gestured to the chair next to her without looking at me.

“Sit,” she said, through teeth gripping a hand rolled cigarette. She noticed me staring at the cigarette. “I roll my own. Did you know filters take about 400 years to biodegrade?”

“Nope.” The last fifteen minutes had left me with the distinct impression that the less I said, the better.

She lit her cigarette and took a long drag, exhaling blue smoke through her nostrils like a dragon. “Well, they do.”

I wasn’t about to argue, even though that sounded wildly exaggerated to me. I didn’t care where she got her facts. I could give a shit less if it was true. I just stared passively at her, waiting for my marching orders. I wasn’t getting paid to deal with drama, or to argue, so I avoided both at all costs.

She looked at me with an appraising eye. I guess I passed the test because she finally continued. “Who else is coming?” she asked pointedly. I was surprised she didn’t know. She had acted like she spoke to someone about this meeting, and it wasn’t me. I panicked. Are there more women, like the ones who just left, who are coming? I was suddenly even more self-conscious than before.

I checked my phone. “Maria says she had to go back home and get her things? I don’t know what she means,” I said. “Janis says she is on her way.”

I rolled my eyes. I was guessing Maria went back home to change and get supplies. I wondered how long that would take.

“Wasn’t there a fourth?”

I looked up as I shoved my phone back into my bag. “Oh, yes, Nora. She has to work. She can’t make it. She is starting a new job,” I answered.

“Nora?” Agate wondered out loud. “The DEA agent?”

I stopped cold in my tracks. DEA agent? Really? I mean I wouldn’t have guessed that, but…“I have no idea. She’s married to Damon and worked at that pub downtown next to where the White Light bookstore used to be. She’s in the cosmetics business now.”

“Little girl?” Agate asked.

“Yes, she has a young daughter,” I answered, now thoroughly puzzled.

Agate nodded. “We go way back.”

My brow furrowed. What the f&^k is happening here? I wondered.

“Anyway, you’re not dressed for today’s work.”

“I thought this was just an orientation,” I answered.

Agate gave a dry laugh as she snubbed out her cigarette and absently chucked a cat off her lap. “Orientation? Yeah, sure, but we do actual work.”

“So you know Wise Woman?” I asked trying to change the subject. When the hell are Maria and Janis gonna get here???

Agate stood up and grabbed her water glass. I was thirsty but said nothing. She didn’t bother offering me a drink. “Yeah, weird old lady hawking that herb school an hour outside of the city? I know her.”

I wasn’t sure that Agate had room to call anyone else “weird.”

“I took classes with her. Great classes. Did you know she was taught by Susun Weed?” I asked.

“Everyone knows that; she makes sure of it,” Agate quipped, and then led me outside. “So, you need a tour of my yard. Go this way first,” she said, leading me down a set of rickety stairs. “The trolls live under there,” she said pointing under her porch. “I usually have to toss leftover bread and vegetable scraps under there for them. They share with the raccoons and possums,” she explained.

Okay, I get the whole reverence to the natural world and all, but hosting wild animals under the porch seems like a bad idea, I thought. I shook my head and continued behind her. The troll comment didn’t even phase me. Agate was different and imaginative but, for the most part, sane. Just because I had never seen one didn’t mean they didn’t exist. I saw plenty of things in my life others don’t routinely see, so I knew that just about anything was possible.

“This is my pride and joy,” she said, touching the trunk of an odd tree with strange pods dangling from the limbs. “It’s the mother catabwa,” she said.

“Catabwa?” I repeated, to be sure.

“Catabwa,” she confirmed.

I suppressed an eye roll. I think she means catalpa, I thought. Whatever.

“She gave birth to the other two in the yard over this way. Let’s walk around over here, because there’s a beautiful spider’s web across the path and I don’t want to disturb this gorgeous gift of art from the Mother,” she said, leading me into the tall, un-mowed grass. “This is where those pants and boots would have come in handy,” she chided. “Check yourself for ticks when you get home.”

I sighed. People who don’t like to mow grass shouldn’t have lawns, I thought. Or at least they should refrain from taking people on tours of their yard. Chet hates mowing. We need to live somewhere without a lawn. So should this lady. A rock garden would be a better fit, I thought. I knew I would have chigger bites all over my legs by the time this was over. I wondered who she had told to wear pants and boots, or if she told anyone at all. I hated feeling unprepared for anything.

We meandered around a yard that she was immensely proud of, but that looked utterly unkempt to me. My mother took such pride in her yard. The lawn looked like a lush carpet, and all of her flowers flowed over the boundaries of their beds in bright, colorful waves. I had learned from the best and shook my head as I followed along. Agate would point out special spots where she thought magical spirits lived or where there might be an energy vortex. It was late afternoon and the humid heat was oppressive. It was the weekend and I wanted to return home. I wondered when we would get down to the work of fire tending. I imagined sinking down onto the couch in the air conditioning with a glass of fresh squeezed lemonade.

“So, this,” she continued, gesturing to a large pile of brush, “came from a diseased tree that I was forced to cut.”

There it is, I thought. The tree she had been loathe to cut. Every witch has one. I stared at the pile of twisted, tangled, rotten branches and wondered if the work she had mentioned involved hauling the brush off her property for her.

“We will be taking this to the festival as kindling and to help with keeping the fire sustained for the drumming circle. I need all of this, and those two piles over there,” she flapped her hand loosely toward more piles of brush off in the distance, “loaded into the trailer behind the garage there.”

Inwardly, I groaned. Oh, I get it, I thought, a sudden epiphany dawning. Fire tenders are free yard laborers who haul off your code violations and schlep that shit to some sacred festival to be disposed of. No fucking way did I sign up to be a brush schlepper. I only nodded absently. Where the F*$K are Maria and Janis??? I discreetly checked my phone. They were both now an hour late and I was stuck with this caustic lady, getting roped into pro bono yard work on a 95-degree evening. On a Saturday.

“So I heard we’re in charge of actually building something interesting to burn,” I said, trying desperately to change the subject from brush hauling.

Agate nodded and her eyes lit up. She began walking toward the road. “So over there,” she pointed across the street to a steep hillside that dropped off from the ditch, “is some walnut that was cut down by the power company. I think we should go over there and see what pieces we can find for the big ceremonial burn,” she said.

The lawyer in me cringed. She pointed to the tiny shed of a dwelling across the street. The tree she wanted to investigate had been cut down on what appeared to be the meth shack’s property, which meant we’d be trespassing and stealing…most likely from a tweaker. If that meth head knows the value of walnut wood…I shook my head and pushed the thoughts away.

“You think that guy is cool with that?” I said gesturing to the shack.

Agate stopped and spun on her heel to eye me. “He isn’t using it.”

“That looks like a place a tweaker would live,” I countered, holding my ground. Do I need to point out the tattered Confederate flag in the window? I wondered. What about that dismantled air conditioning unit in the window that looks like someone stole the freon? I didn’t budge. If we were going to go there, I figured we ought to bank on safety in numbers. I wasn’t stepping foot over there with this woman. If Janis and Maria got here and were okay with it, I might reconsider it.

Agate shrugged. “There have been issues,” she said cryptically. “Nora has run an undercover operation on this street for meth before.”

There’s that DEA shit again! I thought, angrily. What the hell is happening here? Is she trying to say that we shouldn’t worry because she has a friend who is keeping tabs on the crackhead? Or is this some weird immunity type situation? My mind whirled. I stood my ground and started heading back across the street to her yard without her. Noticing that I wasn’t keen on being an accomplice, she headed over by herself, took two seconds to scope out the variety of logs and broken limbs, quickly selected a highly gnarled piece, and marched back across the street with it, thumping it down on the driveway.

“See, that right there, that looks like the head of a crow,” she waved her hand over the wood, “and that’s the beak. We were meant to have this. The Mother provides.”

“Uh huh,” I answered absently, looking down the street. Where are they??? I was starting to get pissed.

The whole deal of getting into the festival for free was starting to unravel for me. We were obligated to donate 10 hours of our time. I had been there over an hour already, had accomplished nothing of substance, was probably covered in chigger bites, and was about to get saddled with yard work, trespassing, and theft.

“Well, I guess we’ll go inside and wait for the other two,” she said, heading back up to the house. “Since you’re not prepared to jump into this today.”

I didn’t answer her backhanded remark and eagerly followed her to the house. By now, I was cultivating a very strong dislike for the woman. For someone supposedly so spiritually evolved, she struck me as insecure and condescending, not at all the caliber of Wise Woman. Maybe it’s why she didn’t seem to like her.

The screened in porch was only slightly cooler as the late day sun slanted through the canopy of trees and undergrowth through the screens. Stepping into the home, I noticed it wasn’t much cooler; her air conditioning probably wasn’t even on. The shades were mostly drawn, all the ceiling fans were churning, but coming from a half hour of sweaty, early evening peak heat, I struggled to cool off. The heat hung in the humid air and clung to my skin. Agate grabbed herself some water, but never offered me any for a second time. I was desperately thirsty but kept quiet. I returned to my seat at the table and waited to see what was next.

By now, it was six o’clock, two hours after everyone had agreed to meet for this strange orientation that was beginning to feel more like some sort of pagan hazing ritual. The room was crammed with bookshelves, which in turn, held an impressive collection of metaphysical, feminist, and pagan titles. I began scanning the spines of the books, trying to commit some of them to memory. As a bibliophile, I could have easily spent days ignoring the rest of my surroundings and immersing myself in her collection. I decided at that moment it might be best to focus on our most obvious commonality.

When she returned to the table, lighting another of her rolled cigarettes, I pointed to her collection. “This is really impressive,” I began. “I hate it when people ask me this, but I have to know…have you read them all?”

She didn’t meet my gaze and only shrugged. “No,” she answered simply. “I used to own a store. It failed. Lots of bullshit. This is some of the inventory I couldn’t sell. So, it’s here. But I’ve read a lot of it.”

I swallowed my disappointment. At least the books hadn’t been totally orphaned. In my life, I would lose so many good books to people who would borrow a book and promise to return it, but never would. There are some books I had bought four or five times, and finally, I just stopped loaning my books out altogether. No one seemed to care about the books as much as I did. They were treasured friends, companions in the depths of my loneliest moments in life. The only books I had ever really disposed of were a few sets of old, musty encyclopedias that just became too cumbersome to move around. The books in Agate’s house were a collection of rare and peculiar oddities, things a person didn’t readily find in an average bookstore. Collecting dust and saturated with years of nicotine, my heart twisted at their neglect.

The long rrrrreeeeeeennnnngggg of the doorbell snapped me back into the present moment and I almost jumped out of my seat to answer the door myself, but instead I sat quietly as Agate took her time snuffing out a cigarette and sauntering through the maze of small rooms to the door. I immediately heard Janis’ voice and sighed with relief. Janis would have water – or something – on her. I was parched and about to lose all patience.

Janis bounced into the room, her normal vivacious self, a jug of milk in one hand, Kahlua and vodka gripped with fingers in a fist in the other. “I come bearing gifts!” she announced.

“Of course you do,” I smiled. We all did. Not that it mattered to our eccentric hostess.

Agate turned up her nose at the offering. “I don’t do dairy,” she sniffed.

“Neither does Aubs, but how about some vodka?” Janis smiled, always the bright light of the party.

“You’re not dressed for this, either,” Agate pointed out. Janis was wearing ripped up jeans, old converse, and a tie-dyed shirt.

Janis kept on smiling, unphased. “Well, I didn’t get the memo,” she said. That’s what I said, too! I thought. Somehow when Janis said it, it came off as endearing. When I said it, it fell flat, as if I was being defensive. Which I was. Sort of.

Janis was a master at navigating social nuances. She knew the vibe was awkward and tense and immediately changed the subject. “I love your Bernie Sanders bumper sticker!”

Immediately Agate perked up. “I just love that man,” she gushed.

Oh f*$k. Here it goes. There is no escaping the depths to which I am beginning to loathe this lady. There were few things I hated more than politics…any politics. I didn’t want a ruler. I was tired of old men telling me what to do and old, cranky women hen pecking me.

“Do you have any weed?” I blurted, staring desperately at Janis. Not that it would help my thirst, but if we were heading into a briar patch of dogma, I was going to need something to help me sit in a corner with my philosopher’s hat on. I scarcely cared that I had interrupted Agate’s prattling about the virtues of the social democrat platform and its savior from Vermont.

Janis smiled knowingly at me. She knew I hated politics and she forgave me for it. She knew I was grasping for middle ground. She knew I had endured a tense two-plus hours with this abrasive woman. She knew vodka wouldn’t cut it.

“No, I’m sorry Doty,” Janis answered. “Voldemort stole my one hitter.” I loved that she referred to her husband as Voldemort now.

Agate looked quizzically at her, and then recognition dawned across her face, and she nodded. She passed a little tin across the table to Janis and slid a lighter towards her.

“See,” Janis said, “she is a woman who knows her company.”

It was one thing I could admire about Bernie supporters: I had yet to meet one that didn’t like cannabis. Finally common ground had been reached.

I wasn’t sure if Janis was being sarcastic in a way that only I would recognize or if she was trying to overcompensate for me, because at this point, I was hot, sweaty, thirsty, and tapped out on manners and patience. I didn’t care. She took the first puff and passed it to me. I then passed it to Agate.

“Do you smoke in here?” Janis asked. “Cigarettes?”

You didn’t smell the smoke walking in? I quipped caustically in my head. I was struggling to keep myself in check.

Agate nodded and offered one of hers.

“I’ve got some,” Janis said, reaching for her purse. “But thank you.”

Janis pulled out a pack of Marlboro Lights. I looked immediately over at Agate and saw her eyes narrow. I knew what was coming.

“Cigarette butts take 400 years to decompose,” Agate said offhandedly to Janis.

Janis lit her cigarette and smiled. “Really? I didn’t know that!”

Agate kept going. “Yeah, a bunch of pagans just toss those out their car windows. I call them Plastic Pagans. They aren’t the real deal. They pretend to care about the planet, but they really don’t if it isn’t convenient.”

Janis nodded quietly, choosing her next words carefully. “Well that’s definitely something to consider.”

The doorbell rang again. Agate, true to form, took her time to leave the table to answer it. As soon as I was sure she was out of earshot, I looked at Janis.

“Saved by the bell!” Janis leaned over and whispered loudly.

“This lady is a nightmare!” I whispered fiercely.

“She’s something. What the hell? Plastic Pagan???” Janis chuckled. “There is cat fur everywhere!”

I let out a snort. I was a cat person, but the fur situation was bad, even by my standards.

“Before you got here, she said she knows Nora and she’s a DEA agent,” I whispered quickly.

“What? Wait. Whoa. Are you –“ Janis started to say, but then abruptly cut herself off. Maria appeared in the doorway.

“Hey guys!” Maria said softly, setting her bag down. Her hair was up and she had a bandana on. She was wearing old jeans and boots. There were gloves and tools peeking out of her bag. Suddenly, I was irritated.

“No…” I started. I felt Janis grab my arm.

Maria looked over her shoulder and then back at me. “When I got your text I went back home,” she said, shrugging.

Janis let out a dry laugh. “Fear of the Dragon Lady,” she muttered under her breath.

I rolled my eyes. “F*$kin’ great, you two!” I snarled.

Maria gave me a sheepish grin. She had gone back home mid-route when I had texted about not being dressed for the occasion and had gone home, changed, and packed up her work gear. Meanwhile, I had been taking one for the team with Dragon Lady. Good nickname, though, I thought.

“So is this everyone?” Agate said, sitting back down at the table.

We nodded.

“Nora can’t come,” Maria began.

“Yeah, she’s working,” Agate finished, waving a hand dismissively. “Okay,” she started, perching a pair of readers on her nose and pulling out a folder. “I’ve got a great crew this year, lots of veterans. Women coming in from Michigan, Oregon, California, all over. You all are the new ones. There is one, maybe two, other new ones…but they don’t live around here and orientation for them will be at the festival.”

So basically, we’re grunts. Like, last in this vast hierarchy of the vagina commune. Got it. I looked at Janis and Maria. Both remained impassive. Agate passed us each a half sheet of paper that read:

Wymon of the Flame

Firetender Guidelines

Jeans, boots with hard soles, gloves – preferably leather, but cotton will work as long as there is no plastic or rubber involved – head covering OVER ponytail or braid and long sleeved shirt if you have sensitive skin prone to burning.

No loose clothing or jewelry – including facial jewelry – when tending fire.

All firetenders must be 18 or older, unless involved with the Maidens’ Firetender program – see Agate for details. Maidens’ Firetender program is for young girls 12 years and older. Any girls under the age of 12 can speak to Agate about becoming involved.

Lead Firetender will make all decisions regarding their fire.

Things that will cause you to get reprimanded or worse while on duty ~ Coming to work under any form of intoxication, and/or unsafe behavior to yourself or others

Firetender responsibilities ~ clean up sacred space daily ~ this includes firepit, dance area & surrounding area, including raking dance circle daily & firming up edges around firepit ~ help with setting of fires at approximately 10am ~assist with set up for Rituals, as requested by Ritual Goddess ~ Keep everyone within the dance area safe, including keeping them hydrated with provided water ~ keep all smoking products & glass containers out of the dance circle ~ have fun!!!

Respect ~ Your Self, Others, The Land, and, most of all the Sacred Flame!

It sounded easy enough. I was glad I had read Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler, otherwise I would have been completely baffled by the spelling of “Wymon,” which was the pagan feminist way of spelling woman without using “man.” There were a lot of reasons for this, but it all distilled down to the basic principle that spelling and referring to women as wo-man amounted to an acknowledgement that man was the root of humanity. Some feminist pagans rejected this, arguing they didn’t need any trace of anything male to be who they were. It was radical philosophy and I wasn’t sure I identified with it, but it didn’t bother me that she chose to spell it that way. But just that little word told me a lot about the wymon in charge.

I had questions, but I didn’t ask them. I wasn’t sure I cared about the answers, at least not as I expected they were likely to be given. I sat staring at the sheet in front of me, listening to Agate go over each one, content to allow this to run its course as fast as possible so I could get the hell out of there. But then her voice began to rise and I snapped back to attention.

“It’s a sacred space!” she said passionately, her raspy voice squeaking just a little. “No cigarettes, weed, alcohol, or anything else in there. Don’t let people throw their butts in the fire!!!”

Why not? I mean, if it takes 400 years for a f*$king butt to biodegrade, why not toss it in and let it burn up in, like, five minutes? Everything in me was screaming to just be quiet, but I just…couldn’t…resist…my surly side, my thirsty side, my impatient at having my time wasted side…all decided to collide.

“What about the intention?” I asked. Maybe it was the lawyer in me, but there was this little masochistic particle in my soul that like to point out hypocrisies.

Agate’s eyes darted over to me, taken aback at the interruption. “What intention? What do you mean?”

I leaned forward casually. “You know, the whole ritual aspect of tobacco or liquor or any substance, really,” I started. “I mean, from a pagan perspective, which has its roots in indigenous cultures, what if someone is within the ritual fire area and they are smoking tobacco? It might not be a peace pipe, you know? What if it is a Marlboro? And what if this person is envisioning all the negativity within them being smudged out by the tobacco, the filter a metaphorical filter for what they take in and then that big exhale as a release?”

Agate’s eyes narrowed. “Each campsite can have its own campfire. But for the group ritual fire, there has to be rules.”

I nodded. Ah yes, here we are, imposing some dogma. “I get it, keep people safe and such. But who is to say what form of expression of sacred space is the right one and which one is the prohibited one?”

Her thin lips curled into a crooked smile. “The committee.”

“Oh, you mean the group that was here when I arrived?” I asked, feigning confusion.

“Well, we delegate and work together,” Agate shrugged.

“Everyone has a department?” I asked, furrowing my brow. I really am trying to figure this out, I thought sarcastically.

Agate nodded impatiently.

“And you’re the Lead Firetender?” I asked, pointing at the sheet. “You’re the one in charge of that department?”

“Yep,” she said, opening a tin holding her cigarettes and withdrawing a new one. “So really, then, that’s your rule,” I said, looking up at her.

Her face darkened, but only briefly. Gotcha! I thought. I just wanted her to admit it. These weren’t pagan rules, they were her rules.

She grabbed her lighter and lit her cigarette. “I have been a lead fire tender for thirteen years. I was given one of thirteen fire sticks from a Native American shaman fire master,” she said, pulling rank, and twisting around in her seat and picking up a fire stick leaning on the wall behind her. “This was passed on to me.”

I always challenged authority and hierarchy, I couldn’t help it. I wasn’t going to buy into something wholesale just because it was a tradition, or a bequest, or a custom. I needed to know why.

“So, it was the shaman fire master’s rule?” I doubled down. I looked over my shoulder at Maria, who looked back at me with a raised eyebrow as if to say, hmm, fair point. Janis, the peacemaker, kicked my foot under the table.

Agate’s look was defiant. “I don’t remember where I got it from.”

Ah, there it is! The good ol’ “I don’t recall” bit whenever someone gets backed into a corner while testifying. This woman completely lacks accountability.

“Huh,” I said, nodding my head and appearing satisfied with that response. She had just told me everything I needed to know. The rule was arbitrary. It was her belief system. Not pagan’s. No the festival’s. Not her mentor’s. Hers and hers alone.

For something to be sacred, it had to have meaning. And if there was one thing I had learned about meaning, it was that it was highly personal, and out of necessity of expressing its highest form, it had to be expressed on an individual basis. True, there were always group settings for sacred gatherings – church, baptisms, confession, praying to Mecca, yoga classes, rituals – but within each of those, everyone was doing their own thing within themselves. The hope is that everyone can generate the highest form of reverence and gratitude within themselves, but at the same time, to respect that everyone will have a different way of getting there. Once a person arrives at that place, if it’s an energetic thing, it will radiate out from all these people and help accomplish what all group sessions are really designed to accomplish: raising energy, amplifying energy. If Agate couldn’t explain what she – or the festival - was trying to create, then how would it ever be created?

Agate continued on down the list. None of it held any great deference for me anymore. I could do whatever I wanted, intend what I wanted, manifest what I wanted, but without a clear unified purpose, I knew that the fire circle would ultimately take on whatever energy happened to dominate in a given moment. It would be volatile. The Midwesterner in me knew all about volatility because of the weather. One moment, it could be hot, humid, and not a trace of a breeze. Suddenly, a wind would kick up, the sky would be black with clouds, the temperature would plummet twenty degrees in minutes, and a front would bear down, wielding tornadoes, floods, or blizzards. As above, so below. Volatility bred swift and sudden changes. As much as I would have liked to have dictated how that change would occur and manifest itself, I knew I wouldn’t be able to and it would never be my place. It was like childbirth. I would have to let something with more wisdom than myself take over...and that something wasn’t Agate.

The meeting had somehow managed to wrap up by the time I was aware that everyone was shifting and moving around me. I gathered up my journal and took a swig from Maria’s glass bottle filled with water.

“You don’t ever leave home without water!” she scolded me. She was right. And I never did after that, even if I only planned to be gone five minutes.

Behind me, I could hear Agate shuffle towards the door. “We need to set up a time, next weekend or the weekend after that, to meet up – wear your work clothes – because we need to move those brush piles and figure out our build. All of you need to be here.”

I glanced at my phone. It was just after seven. I had been there for more than three hours. I wondered how long the next meeting would take. True to form, I had read the guidelines for the festival online. By volunteering ten hours, we got passes into the festival. Three down, seven to go, I thought. I loathed having my weekends intruded upon but figured the more time I put in up front, the more free-time I would have at the festival.

“What about next Sunday? Nora doesn’t usually work Sundays,” I suggested.

Everyone agreed to return to the crazy witch lair the following week, with our ripped-up jeans, boots, gloves, and gear. I made a mental note to bring my own water. Walking down to the car, once we were out of the driveway and onto the street where we parked, the trees blocking us from view, Maria spun to look at Janis and I.

“I didn’t sign up to do this lady’s yard work!”

Janis laughed and looked at me. “Oh my god, Aubs, I’m so, so, sorry we left you to fend for yourself in there. She’s a little off,” she said, grabbing both my hands.

“My first impression is not a good one,” I confirmed. I told them, briefly, how my initial meeting had gone. “The ladies just ignored me. I thought these pagans were supposed to be all welcoming, ‘free to be me’ people. They didn’t say a goddamn word and Agate looked at me like I was some kind of insect.”

Maria shook her head and lowered her voice. “The women that run this thing can be petty,” she warned. “They think they are way more important than they really are. Agate’s supposed to be one of the better ones.”

“Jesus,” Janis chuckled. “And did anyone else feel the energy in there?”

“Girl, it was bad!” Maria agreed. “What the f*%k? All that chaos.”

“Cats?” I said facetiously.

“Chaos,” Maria chuckled.

“Yeah, but the cats…there were just a lot of goddamn cats,” Janis said. Janis wasn’t fond of cats. One of her old roommates had a cat that had hidden under the bed and attacked people’s ankles as they were getting in and out of bed.

“I was thinking about chaos while she was talking. Doesn’t seem like she’s figured out the energy she’s trying to cultivate. And this committee didn’t really seem to like Wise Woman, either.” I told them about the discussion that was had for keynote speaker.

“Did you text Nora about next week?” Janis asked.

“Who, Nora the DEA agent?” I joked.

“Yeah! What the hell was that about?” Maria burst out.

“It’s got to be a mistake,” Janis said. She always gave everyone the benefit of the doubt…usually too much benefit and too little doubt. I was overly cynical, so I was able to balance her out. But even on this, I was skeptical.

“There’s no way she is thinking of the same person,” I agreed.

“Look, I’m just here to build a big f*&king fire,” Maria said, laughing.

Janis and I nodded. We weren’t interested in becoming Agate’s posse.

I went home and was greeted by my two-year-old and a happy husband. While I played with daughter on the floor, I told Chet everything. He busted out into a hearty laugh at the DEA part.

“I’m getting her a hat!” he shouted, running off to grab his laptop.

By the time the following week rolled around, I made sure not to arrive earlyI had water, a beat-up pair of gloves Chet gave me, my boots, jeans, and a raggedy, stained tank top. I pulled my hair back into a pony tail, and had brought a couple pairs of clear, plastic glasses for eye protection (that was Chet’s idea), a sharpie (also Chet’s idea), a tape measure (Chet again) and a pair of loppers (my idea). I tossed it all into my trunk with a towel and a snack for later. Though it took thirty minutes to get to Agate’s, I left ten minutes before I was supposed to be there which would make me – cringe – twenty or so minutes late. Probably right about when Maria would show up, but maybe before Janis. Nora would hopefully have arrived right around the appointed time.

Despite all this planning and maneuvering, I was still the first to arrive. Agate didn’t seem put off by my tardiness like she had been when I was early, so I patted myself on the back for having gotten something right. She was sitting in the screened porch, smoking, and as soon as I pulled up, she hoisted herself from the chair and grabbed her gloves. She eyed me quickly and gave a nod of approval before gesturing me back down the driveway and pointing across the street. This again, I thought as we headed for Meth Head’s ditch. I glanced over at the shack and there were no cars out front. That didn’t necessarily mean anything, but I chose to lie to myself and believe it was a good sign.

“He said I could take it,” Agate reassured me, as if reading my mind. “I know you were worried about it last time, being a lawyer and all. You want to pick up the big ones, or interesting ones, anything that looks like we can get a good burn time out of it,” she instructed, heading into the weeds.

I stood there a moment, scanning. There was one piece near the tree line that looked like it had a knot where an eye could be, and a long, twisted piece that resembled a beak. I pointed to it. “What about that one?”

She looked up and hurried toward it. “It’s perfect!” she said, pulling at it and positioning it to be carried. She began hauling it out of the ditch and across the road to her driveway. I found a couple big logs with hollowed out centers that might make interesting fire tunnels or volcanoes. I dragged them up the hill. Within ten minutes, we had collected a pile of larger pieces. The other women began to arrive.

The first person to arrive was a timid, plump woman named Indigo. Agate introduced her as her acolyte. I immediately felt sorry for the woman. I wondered what Indigo was learning from Agate. It was a common thing in the pagan world for a person to have a festival name or a ritual name and then their given, legal name would become obscure and unused. Often, by the time a pagan had reached sixty, they had legally changed their name to the pagan one they had chosen. Wise Woman had inquired as to whether I knew how to do a legal name change; she wanted to ditch her legal first name for something more whimsical. I wondered if Indigo was this woman’s legal name. I knew that Agate was going by her pagan name full time. It would be a hard balance to strike, picking an acceptable pagan name without sounding like a Harry Potter character.

As Maria, Nora, and then Janis arrived, we all watched as Agate ordered Indigo around like a servant. “Go get the cord from the table over there,” or “No, you’re not supposed to put that there” or “I need water,” and my favorite, “maybe you need to go sit over there and watch.” I half expected to hear Agate bark orders at Indigo to go clean the litter boxes. It was more evidence to me that the arbitrary hierarchy within pagan circles was a hard and fast rule that shouldn’t always be obeyed. I vowed in that moment to do only the duties I had agreed to do and nothing more.

After about an hour, we had arranged the logs and bits of wood into something that resembled a bird. “This year’s patron goddess is the Morrigan, and she takes the form of a raven,” Agate told us.

This much, we knew. Pictures of the Morrigan were posted all over the website and applications for the festival. However, other than being told the name and general manifestation of the goddess, we weren’t given anything other than superficial details. “She’s a Warrior Goddess!” the materials had proclaimed. “Recapture your inner warrior!” My inner warrior? I had mused. I was tired from fighting all the time at work. I wasn’t sure I needed, much less wanted, to be any more of a warrior than I already was.

I wasn’t sure if the lack of detail was because we were expected to know these things already or if it was because Agate didn’t care to take a deep dive into the subject. Maybe the deep-sea diving had been delegated. We numbered the pieces and took pictures of how the bird had been put together and decided to leave before getting roped into moving brush piles. Poor Indigo would likely have the misfortune of tackling that project.

The second meeting had taken two hours. For someone who had to relentlessly keep track of every last minute for work, I was acutely aware of the value of my time; I lived my life in billable six-minute increments. More than three hours the week before and two hours this time meant half my community service commitment had been fulfilled. Agate still talked about the other fire tenders coming from all over the country to help her with the festival, so I was expecting to attend one shift at the festival to call it good.

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