Sabrina served me a piping hot cup of coffee, along with my regular ration of friendly shit for missing breakfast the day before.
“I could never be a serious fisherman,” I offered in my own defense. “You know why?”
“You already said, you don’t like getting up in the morning if there’s somebody in your bed to get up from.”
“No, I mean before the wedding. You know what I had for breakfast yesterday? Oatmeal. Who invented oatmeal, anyway? I think it’s a Communist plot to poison the minds and stomachs of Americans.”
“It’s not the Communists, darlin’, it’s the Yankees. They were trying to find something that would warm the belly but they weren’t clever enough to come up with grits.”
“How the hell did we ever lose the war?”
“’Tis a puzzle.”
“And besides that, along with my oatmeal, I had nothing but my own wit. Do you know how tasteless that is first thing in the morning? Tough as shoe leather. Can you sack me up a to-go box of your lovely wordplay to take out on the river?”
“You flatterer.” She ruffled my hair again. Seems like that was getting to be a regular thing. Not that I was complaining.
I started to tell her about the island, but something inside me wanted to keep it to myself. Not from her, necessarily, but from the rest of the town. The very thought of Ollie and Joe traipsing over my island caused me gastro distress. Rick, are you jealous about a chuck of land? It seemed so. Maybe I’d have an opportunity to tell Sabrina in private sometime.
* * * * *
I was twenty minutes early to the boat ramp; Chai Fox was twenty minutes late. It usually pisses me off when people aren’t on time, but I automatically excused it because of the road. This time.
Chai had replaced the long dress with a pair of tailored jeans, tied her hair back, and was wearing sensible shoes. But everything else was pretty much the same: colorful print blouse, beads and amulets and big dangly earrings although not the same ones, freckles still looking out of place. She was carrying a jacket and a large canvas sack.
“OK, Tiger. Let’s go see this island of yours. I brought supplies in case we needed them.”
“I have sandwiches and coffee but nothing more exotic.”
“Well, it’s a damn good thing I packed the martinis, then.”
Chai sat beside me on the seat behind the windshield, and although talking required a certain amount of shouting over the motor, she managed by getting very close to my ear. The patchouli with orange scent was definitely the same.
The flirting stopped when we got close enough for me to point out the mist hiding the island. Actually, “haze” might be more accurate. It wasn’t like an identifiable fog, more like a lack of definition compared with the other islands.
“That’s the damndest thing I’ve seen in a while,” Chai admitted, fingering her beads as if they were a rosary.
“You can’t tell what the island looks like from a distance. That’s probably why George used the picture in the book as a model. They aren’t really the same, but they have the same feel.”
“It’s a very compelling place.”
We pulled up to the beach and anchored the boat. I was relieved to see that the stick I’d stuck in the ground the day before was still there. If there was magic keeping the island immaculate, at least it wasn’t fanatical about it.
Chai stood on the beach facing the island, eyes closed, head back, arms held a bit away from her body. She stayed that way a long time, totally still except for the rise and fall of long, deep breaths.
“It has a deep essence of quiet,” she finally whispered. “You can feel it as well as hear it. The spirit of this place is powerful and ancient.”
Back on the mainland I would have blown those words off as just New Age hyperbole. But out here, the words “deep essence of quiet” summed up what I felt perfectly.
We walked single file along the path toward the hilltop. Chai kept stopping along the way and I kept finding her missing when I looked around and having to wait for her to catch up. Finally I let her lead. I’ll have to admit, the view was better from back there as well—her jeans showed off her firm posterior musculature much better than the dress had.
At the top she stopped and just took it all in for at least ten minutes. As did I, standing beside her to share the same view of nothing in particular except a clearing on a little rise.
When she started to move again I whispered, “Come, let me show you what I found.” I led her to the closest of the depressions and pointed out the circle.
Chai was stunned. “This can’t be here. These once held standing stones, but there are no such stones around here, and no obvious way to get them up from the beach.” She brushed her hand slowly back and forth across the bottom of the depression, her face pale. “If there was a sacred circle here, it should have been built out of wood poles, but the depressions would have been round and much smaller, and probably would have been filled by now. And where did the stones go?”
We spent the next hour clearing leaves and debris out of all of the depressions. I suggested putting sticks in them to make them easier to see but she shuddered at the idea.
“I think we’ve earned a martini, don’t you?” Chai asked after we’d finished. Being a guy I hadn’t thought to bring a blanket, but Chai had a towel which she spread out away from the circle a bit. She dug into her bag and came up with two thermoses, one with ice and one with martinis, plus a shaker and a little bottle of olives.
“Yesterday I had a bottle of water with my peanut butter sandwich.”
“Well, that’s about the best one can expect from a Norman, even a semi-enlightened one. Fortunately, you have me to save you from yourself. Cheers.” I recognized the taste of the same Bombay Sapphire gin we’d had at the restaurant. If I wasn’t careful, high-priced gin could quickly develop into a habit.
Apparently it was OK to chat outside of the circle. Chai managed a shop that sold books, incense, jewelry, healthful alternatives and supplements, and homeopathic remedies to Beaufort’s small but fierce New Age community. Dealing with what she called, “Darling people, but some of them are, you know, out there?” supplied her with an endless cache of amusing anecdotes. My only tasks were to drink and laugh at the proper times, activities that I performed with both diligence and aplomb.
I’d lost count of the anecdotes but not the martinis—three rounds each—when Chai suggested, “Let’s see if we can find the altar.” With both of us quartering the area it didn’t take long, although the depression was only about nine inches deep. It was about four paces from the outer circle in the direction I judged to be north.
After we’d removed the leaves, Chai poured the dregs from the martini thermos into the hole—a libation of sorts, I suppose—then sat in lotus position directly in front. I came and sat beside her, legs crossed gently—normal human males should not be able to sit in lotus position, and in this one limitation I was perfectly normal. Closing my eyes, I concentrated on listening to deep essence of quiet. Which in meditation terms meant listening to nothing. Far different than not listening to anything, I’d discovered during my sessions of walking the wheel.
After awhile—ten minutes? forty?—Chai raised herself to a kneeling position and lowered her forehead slowly toward the ground. Her head ended up hanging over the depression, as if she were waiting to be sacrificed.
When she straightened back up to speak, her voice was quiet. “This is likely the most spiritually powerful spot within five hundred miles. Let’s do a card reading.”
Again, back on the mainland I would have made a joke, or at best scoffed to myself. But here, everything seemed possible. Magic? Why not. Divine guidance for our miserable lives? Whose divinity? Or for that matter, what does divine even mean? Wow, Rick: did those thoughts actually come out of your head? I agreed, having no idea what might be coming but trusting that it would be OK at worst, enlightening at best.
Chai fetched her bag, spreading the towel in front of the altar depression. She sat on one side, folding herself into a comfortable cross-legged position. I took the other, finding a position that I could manage to sit in for a while without screaming.
Drawing a deck of tarot cards from her sack Chai riffled them gently, then cut the deck and placed it on the mat. “What you need to do is to clear your mind, then hold a question there and concentrate on it while you’re mixing the cards. So think of what it is that you want to know.”
I wanted to know everything. Where George was. Who was the golden haired woman? How did this mysterious place hold such power over a skeptic like me? On further consideration, I supposed the third question was the most important of the three.
I was in the process of “clearing my mind” when, glancing down toward the depression we had cleared, I noticed something half buried at the front edge. I reached for it, scratching the dirt from around it with a finger, and gently lifted it from the earth. It appeared to be a bone cylinder, about the size of my little finger, with three straight parallel lines carved into it, a fourth slashing across them, and a circle above them all. All of the carved symbols had been blackened.
I held it in my open palm for Chai to see.
She was utterly quiet as she examined the object without moving at first, then touching it gently with a forefinger, finally taking it in her own hand and examining it closely.
“I have no idea what this is, but it emanates great age,” she finally spoke. She reverently touched the object to her forehead, then placed it on the towel off to one side.
“I know the question I want insight about. Let’s do it.” I reached out, spread and mixed the cards around on the towel, then restacked them.
Chai dealt out a center card, then a row of four above it, another row below, and two cards to either side. She peered at the cards for a long couple of minutes, then sighed and pushed them back into a single pile.
“Too much confusion, too much noise, too many conflicting messages. I can’t even really get my mind clear.” She looked a little rueful and let out a single laugh. “I guess I’m a failure as a witch. But I’ve never tried to work in a place like this before. Gaia, I’ve never even been in a place like this before.”
“Insight is highly overrated. I’ve always preferred just stomping through the minefield to find where the mines are buried.”
“You’re sweet.” She absently riffled the cards, occasionally flipping one over, looking at it, and then placing it back in the deck. Six or seven cards later, she laid the deck down beside the rune.
“Let me tell you about Beltane, the festival that falls a half turn of the year from Samhain. Of all of the Feast Days, Beltane is the most powerful. Why is that? Because on the other days celebrants light fires, beat drums, dance until they’re exhausted, drink potions with hallucinogenic drugs in them, and pray for divine strength and guidance from the sacred mother and the blessed father. But on Beltane, they seize the power themselves. They mate in the fields—rutting like animals, drawing the holy presence of the earth into their bodies in an ancient ceremony older than the druids, more sacred than a high mass at St. Paul’s Basilica could ever be.”
She began to unbutton her blouse. “I just hope we survive the experience.”
Drunk on the combination of martinis and mystical power, I could find neither the desire nor the will to object. But ever the gentleman I said, “Um, I don’t have any condoms with me.”
Chai smiled and reached for her canvas bag, the font of all answers to true believers. “Well, perhaps I can help.”