N.B. Sorry for the late post. This chapter required major revisions. Still not sure I’ve got it as good as it can get, but enough for now.
When I talked to Chai on Thursday, she reminded me that Saturday would be Midwinter. I’d been so focused on upcoming Imbolc and eventual Beltane and that I’d forgotten about Yule completely.
“I’ve checked the forecast and it looks like it’s going to be dry and chilly. Want to spend the night out on the island?”
“If I recall correctly, you told me Midwinter isn’t a high feast day and not to expect a bonfire. Not even a Yule log, right?”
“I think we can manage to build our own fire.” Without seeing her face, I couldn’t tell if she’d meant that as a double entendre or not.
“So what should we expect?” I asked.
“Truthfully? I have no idea. Anything from a face-to-face encounter with the spirit world to a sleepless night of great sex.” She chuckled. “My best guess is it’ll be the sleepless night. In any case, that’s the only thing we have any control over.”
“You have control? That’s a surprise. You’ve never exhibited any so far.”
“Stop. You’re making me blush.”
My mouth was open to deliver the retort, “You’re capable of embarrassment? That’s also a surprise. You’ve never exhibited any so far.” But I cut her a little slack and bit it off.
“I think I have everything we need from a long ago relationship with a nature freak,” Chai continued. “A cheap nature freak. Two-person tent, portable stove, stuff like that.”
“Air mattress? The ground’s pretty hard out there.”
“It’s not the only thing. But yes, I have an air mattress. Boy, won’t that be a change. Maybe I won’t come home quite so bruised and battered this time.”
We scheduled our departure to get to Avalon mid-afternoon. It took a while to set up—not only several trips to haul stuff, but also blowing up an air mattress after the first one for a quickie that wasn’t all that quick. By the time the tent was up, gear stowed, wood gathered, and the fire started, the sun was low in the west and the temperature had started to drop. Chai and I both pulled out thermoses of martinis at exactly the same time.
“Ah, great minds and all that. A girl could get used to that.”
“You’ve obviously done this before.”
“Yes, but not nearly as well. I was considerably younger and he thought he was in charge. Except his manliness didn’t extend to paying his share. He stuck around just long enough for me to learn how to set up the tent and use the stove, but not nearly long enough to get my money’s worth. Haven’t had it out since then.” She did a pantomime of putting on mascara while looking into an imaginary mirror. “You’ve probably guessed, I’m not really the outdoors type.”
“Quite frankly, Chai, I’m not sure what kind of type you are. When Tatum first told me about you, I stereotyped you as shallow New Age kooky. But then I discovered you’re anything but shallow, and really not all that New Age, when you get right down to it. I mean, you can talk the talk and everything. But unlike every other New Ager I ever met, you don’t take it too seriously.”
I took a slug of my martini, which had come from her thermos and was perfect. “Your approach to sex is unlike any other woman I’ve slept with: a healthy appetite, but no burning desire to move our relationship to the next level. You love steak—which I brought, by the way—and make perfect martinis. And now you display camping prowess.” I shrugged. “Every time I think I’ve got you figured out, you surprise me again.”
She put down her drink, knelt in front of me, and took my face in both hands. “Oh Rick, I’ve just been waiting for the right moment to tell you this. I knew from the moment we first made love in front of an imaginary altar that we were destined by the goddess to spend a lifetime together. When I’m awake, my every thought is of you. And when I’m asleep, you haunt my dreams.” She was perfect up to that point, but the shock on my face must have been too much because she broke out laughing.
“My god, Chai. You had me totally fooled.”
“Is that what you want? Because I’m a pretty good actress, if I can keep from laughing.” She sat back and recovered her martini mug, finished it off, and refilled both of ours. “I was married for four very long years to a boy who wasn’t ready to grow up yet, back when I still believed in true love. I kept it together mostly by acting, right up until I decided it was all bullshit.”
“So you don’t believe in true love anymore?”
That took me back, and I honestly had to think about it. “Well, I’m not so jaded by failed relationships that I find the concept impossible. I don’t believe in the fairy tale that there’s one woman out there who’s not only right for me, but “intended” for me, whatever the hell that means. Intended by whom? And that I just have to keep looking until I find her. But suppose there is maybe one person out of a thousand that I could make a go of experiencing true love with? Dating in your thirties, it takes a very long time to meet a thousand women.”
“How about in your forties? You have expressed our dilemma precisely and eloquently. Fortunately, with a little gumption and a little imagination, one does not have to spend the years chastely while one looks.”
“So what you’re admitting is, you’re using me as a sex object.”
“Well, I wouldn’t exactly call you a sex object. Those battery powered things in the drawer beside my bed are sex objects. What you are is the perfect lover. One of these marathon days a week is plenty enough to satisfy my needs. You’re fun to be around, one day a week, and we haven’t spent enough time together to start irritating each other. Absolutely I’m using you. But aren’t you doing the very same thing?”
“There you go, surprising me again when I think I’ve got you figured out. Brutally honest—I’ve never met a woman who was brutally honest except when she’s breaking up with me. But even then, you manage to stroke my ego by calling me the perfect lover. Although, in the spirit of brutal honesty, I think it’s the combination of us and the island that makes us so good together.”
“I’ll drink to that.” She smiled as we touched mugs, drank some, then peered down into her cup.”
“Oh, look. Mine seems to have mysteriously gotten low again. Well, my choices seem clear. Either I can refill it again, or we could stop drinking long enough to use each other for a while. What do you think?”
There was only one gentlemanly answer to that, even if I’d rather have had another martini (which I didn’t).
It was dark by the time we got around to making dinner. The fire had been going long enough to make a perfect bed of coals, and I duplicated the feat from my earlier trip of grilling chunks of steak on sticks over the fire.
“Ooh, how manly.”
“Don’t you mean, how Neanderthal?”
‘Whichever shoe fits, my dear, put it on with gusto.”
Chai provided macaroni salad and green salad—both in their grocery store cartons. Whatever else she was, Chai was without pretentions. Even I would have been tempted to transfer them to my own containers. She’d added a handful of small gritty things to the green salad that she said were flax seeds. She’d brought a very nice five-year-old Australian cab-merlot blend as well.
“And here I thought you were a die-hard martini girl.”
“Wine just seems sorta, I don’t know, romantic.”
“Whoa! Romantic. I thought we were just using each other for sex. Where did the romance come from?”
“Sorry. Slip of the tongue. I meant, seductive.” She shrugged. “Our language, and our culture—movies, songs, that sort of shit—are so slanted toward people in love that it’s easy to use the wrong word for what we’re doing. Not that we really need seductive, lover. Mostly just a place.”
Chai had also brought paper plates and plastic ware—for some reason that hadn’t even occurred to me, but it made a lot of sense—so after we’d eaten, we accomplished clean-up by stuffing everything into a garbage bag. Then we just sat there in front of the fire without speaking, watching the flames dance, thinking about nothing and everything, letting the tensions build.
“What the hell is that?”
The sharp tone in Chai’s voice slashed through my reverie—I’d actually been thinking about the game at Peckerwoods’ tomorrow, if the truth be known. She stood and took a step toward the circle. And stopped.
And then I saw what she was looking at—a misty something right there in front of where the altar would be. Motionless as far as I could tell.
We stood there for at least ten minutes, watching without speaking. Although Chai did take my hand, she showed no signs of fear.
“Is that a ghost?” I finally whispered.
“I would use the word ‘spirit,’ merely because we don’t know if it is someone who has died or if we’re looking across dimensions.” Chai spoke in a low voice, but she didn’t whisper. “Let’s move closer.”
And so we did, slowly and respectfully. Slowly on my part, and very quietly, so as not to startle whatever it was. Respectfully on Chai’s, with her hands held palm-up in front of her in a manner that could be interpreted as welcoming.
We didn’t startle it. In fact, it didn’t pay us any mind whatsoever as we moved close to the edge of where the circle of standing stones would have been. But no further, although neither of us articulated why.
The figure was about twenty feet away from where we stopped. It was very indistinct, so although my subconscious reacted like it was a person, my brain replied, no, it is merely human-shaped. Or maybe my brain was just in denial.
“It’s a woman wearing a robe,” Chai spoke in her low voice.
“How the hell can you tell that?”
Chai shrugged. “I just know.” She started to move closer, then stopped. “No, I think we should stay out here.”
“Do you feel something?”
She shrugged again. “Not sure. I just have this feeling that distance is good.”
Other figures took shape as we watched, until there were seven misty wisps forming a circle inside the stones. The figures didn’t move, although the one behind the altar seemed to be shifting slightly.
Finally I was done being the observer. I patted Chai’s shoulder lightly and strode into the circle.
“Rick, what are you doing?”
Chai’s voice was shockingly loud. But instead of answering, I strode between two of the wisps and right up to the altar, facing the whatever it was. Even that close, it was impossible to say if it was the golden haired woman, or if it was a woman at all. And she might have been holding out her arms, but it could have been that she’d been doing that all along and from a distance we couldn’t tell. Whatever the case, there was not one shred of reliable evidence that she noticed me.
In a few moments, Chai slipped up beside me and took my hand again. And so we stood, holding hands and watching, for what seemed like a long time. Long enough to get cold, for sure. Then I noticed that the figures were beginning to fade. A few minutes later, they were gone, the one behind the altar last.
Once they were clearly gone, Chai knelt. That seemed right so I joined her. As I knelt there I emptied my mind best I could with all the turmoil rushing around inside, but received no vision.
In a bit Chai rose, drew me up, and led me back toward the fire. Her eyes were wide, reflecting the dancing flames.
“My goddess, Rick. I can’t believe that we were allowed to experience that. This is the pinnacle of all that I’ve believed and practiced and held in my spirit for twenty years.”
“What do you think it was?” But she only shook her head and went back to staring at the fire, filled with her own thoughts and dreams.
So I went about thinking my own thoughts. I recalled Chai’s words from earlier: “Anything from a face-to-face encounter with the spirit world to a sleepless night of great sex.” I certainly never expected the face-to-face encounter, and I don’t think she did either. Even if she’d named it.
After awhile I got up to add some wood and stoke the fire back up, then put a pot of water on Chai’s portable stove and made us each a cup of Chai tea. She smiled as she took hers, but still didn’t speak.
Soon my tea was gone, and I was thinking about turning in to see what my dreams held for me.
That’s when I saw the second figure. This one was more distinct, clearly humanoid. Standing near the center of the wheel.
“Chai. Look.” Chai gasped as she saw what I was pointing at.
And then it began to move.
As we eased back toward the circle, I realized what the figure was doing: It was walking the wheel we’d build. That stopped me dead in my tracks, the hair on my neck stiff as wire.
Chai figured it out seconds after I did. “My god,” she exclaimed, totally forgetting the preferred sex of her deity.
We stood right where we’d stopped, watching as the figure moved at about the same pace as I walked the wheel. The irreverent thought popped into my head: Hey! Let’s go walk with it! Fortunately, the rest of my brain wasn’t having anything to do with that crap. So instead of experiencing that directly, I merely observed in stillness as it completed one circuit. It then stepped away in the opposite direction from where we stood and disappeared off the hilltop. Definitely not fading like the other figures had done.
Chai’s fingers dug into my arm. “We built a sacred wheel, Rick, and someone came to walk it.” Her eyes were saucers, mirroring the moonlight. “I can’t believe this. I can’t even believe it one bit.”
Eventually we made it back to the fire. Chai had quickly lost her chattiness and was sitting there next to the embers, fingering her amulet. I sat next to her and leaned against her, but she didn’t respond. Sunk deep into herself, gone to a place where I wasn’t welcome, I supposed. I got up and piled the rest of the wood we’d gathered onto the fire.
In a few minutes it was blazing away again. The moon had risen well above the trees as I’d been working. A few days past full, it hung there like an amulet to be plucked and worn. Chai was holding her amulet and her lips were moving, like she was saying the rosary except I bet she wasn’t. So I reached up and held my fingers so the moon was between them, then closed my palm around it. Chai smiled, but still no words. I held the moon tightly in my palm and brought it to my lips, then my chest. And then set it free to roam the sky again, while Chai went back to her reverie.
After awhile I got bored and started nodding off. I wasn’t sure what she was thinking about, but I’d thought enough. So I kissed her gently on top of her head and crawled into my sleeping bag.