The dark green nylon of the tent kept the morning sun from assaulting my face, but I woke up early anyway. The sleeping bag beside mine displayed a dark blue lump with nothing more than a few tendrils of dark hair to indicate who the occupant was, had I not already known.
5:41, my watch informed me. Way too early to crawl into Chai’s sleeping bag. Not that I was particularly horny. I mean, a 32-year-old male is always at least a little horny. But it wasn’t like I was 22. In fact, I wasn’t even as horny as your typical 32-year-old reporter. Curious. So I got up instead.
Avalon, S.C. looked positively ordinary. A little early morning fog down below, but clear up here on the hilltop. Nothing to indicate that only a few hours before, a coven of ghostly pagans had held their Midwinter ritual near where I was standing. No standing stone carelessly left behind, not even a sandstone chip to tantalize me.
But something had changed, even if it was only me. There was no longer any way to avoid the truth that something supernatural was at work here. I mean, I’d known that for a while, but my logical brain had always been handy with a “yeah, but” when I most needed it. Not today.
Curiously, I was at peace without nary a “yeah, but.”
I’d filled my other thermos with coffee for this morning, but it was lukewarm and unappealing. If I was going to be spending nights out here with any regularity, I was going to have to come up with a system for making fresh coffee. Didn’t they use percolators over the campfire back in the cowboy days, before Mr. Coffee changed all that forever? Did anybody still sell those? Well, probably a camping equipment store. Or if not, surely they’d have something. I did the best I could, firing up Chai’s portable stove and heating up what I had.
The fire was a scattering of glowing embers among a mound of warm ash. I thought about stoking it up, but really didn’t want to encourage an extended stay—I had a standing appointment at Peckerwoods’ for kickoff. So I finished a half-cup and walked the wheel.
The stillness of the morning was perfect for meditation. I had no problem whatsoever holding the scene from the night before in my mind. After one complete cycle and into a second, as I walked toward the altar I could see the features of the golden-haired woman faintly visible in the spectral form in front of the altar. Or at least my imagination made her visible.
Ah ha. I knew it was you. Why were you so aloof last night? Was it because Chai was here?
When I finished, Chai was there. Over at the stove, pouring herself a cup of reheated coffee.
“It seems so ordinary in the light of day,” she observed when I got close enough that shouting wasn’t required. Mirroring my earlier thoughts exactly.
“I don’t know what to think.”
“Here’s what I think: this coffee is disgusting.”
“That’s it? You spend the night watching ghosts and that’s the best you have to offer.”
Chai looked over at the circle, clearly agitated with my flippancy. “Don’t call them ghosts. And I don’t really want to talk about that yet. I need to process it some first.”
I shrugged my acquiescence.
Chai didn’t need to be prodded to pack up and leave. She displayed an efficiency of movement as she packed, along with a total lack of interest in food or conversation. Or sex either. Whatever Avalon brought out in us, our experience the night before had damped the omnipresent lust.
Back at my place, with the therapy of a long shower and a fresh cup of coffee, she relaxed a little. “That was truly the most amazing display I’ve ever witnessed. No, more than witnessed. Been a part of.”
She fingered the amulet, which by now had practically become a habit. Perhaps she should get a habit—then she’d really look like she was saying a rosary. Discretion being the better part of valor, I didn’t share the pun.
“Midwinter is the celebration of rebirth. On the longest night of the year, all that is going to die has died. Everything else will now grow and flourish. I feel the same is true about me. Like part of my spirituality had become tired and stale, and I was just going through the motions. And that all died last night.”
“So what happens now?”
“I have no idea. That’s why I have to go be alone.”
“Can I at least offer you breakfast before you go? I have oatmeal, or can scramble some eggs?”
“That seems like a lot of trouble. Why don’t we stop by that little hole-in-the-wall where you like to have breakfast?” She must have seen me bristle at her word choice, because she immediately apologized. “Sorry, that was petty. Why don’t we stop by ‘your place’ for breakfast?”
Why? Because you’re right, it is my place. And you’re a foreigner there. “I’m not sure that’s a great idea, Chai.”
“Why not? This is small town South Carolina. They’ve seen me at the boat ramp and put two and two together already. It’d be good if you showed me off in public.”
Well, no, it wouldn’t be good. But I couldn’t come up with an argument that didn’t sound like a weak excuse. Didn’t think, “I have this sort of girlfriend, even if she is living with somebody else and won’t go out with me, who works there,” would cut it. Well, it was early enough that I didn’t expect Sabrina to be there, so I reluctantly agreed and hoped for the best.
But of course she was. I should have known that The Fates would NEVER pass up an opportunity like this. Or maybe it was the golden haired woman fucking with me.
Sabrina spotted us as soon as we walked through the door and quickly made her way over.
“Hi. Welcome to Peckerwoods’. I’m Sabrina. You must be Rick’s voodoo lady that he’s always telling me about.” Sabrina held out her hand to Chai.
“Voodoo lady?” There was a definite hint of ice in Chai’s tone, and she didn’t take Sabrina’s hand.
“Sorry. Those are my words, not his. I’m just an ol’ country gal who doesn’t know a lot about religion more unconventional than reformed Baptist.” Sabrina was pouring on the accent as she spoke those words. I didn’t dare look at her for fear that I’d break out laughing.
“Your table’s not reserved yet, Rick. Is this one OK? Coffee for you too, miss?”
“Sabrina, this is Chai Fox, my expert on all thing spiritual and new age. Chai, this is Sabrina, fastest wit in the South.”
“My pleasure, Chai Fox. You didn’t say if you wanted coffee. It’s fresh, which is about as spiritual as coffee gets.”
“Yes, Sabrina. Coffee would be fine.” Sabrina left, stopping for a word here and there as she moved her way toward the kitchen. I noticed that her hips had a touch more sway in them than normal.
“My goddess, I think the girl has a crush on you.”
Girl? I started to rise to Sabrina’s defense but something stopped me. Nothing I could say was going to make this any better. And besides, these two were grown women, capable of making their own decisions. If they chose to turn this into a bit of a cat fight, well, the safest place was not between them. Subconsciously I knew I might be rationalizing, but in the absence of a better plan, I rationalized.
“Wanda’s made fresh coffee cake,” Sabrina informed us as she poured coffee and handed out menus. “The yeast kind. Personally I think baking powder ranks right up there with fire and the wheel as mankind’s greatest inventions, but you know Wanda. Y’all know what you want to eat or you need a few minutes?”
And so breakfast went. Sabrina made frequent stops to check on us, laying the honey on thick with a look of wide-eyed innocence and a drawl that kept getting more pronounced with every visit. Chai looked like she was gritting her teeth every time a response was required. She wasn’t primed for conversation yet, obviously still doing her “processing,” whatever that meant to her. Which made me wonder why the hell she’d suggested coming here in the first place.
“So, Chai, do you do readings?” Sabrina asked as she brought the check. “That’s about the only thing I’ve experienced firsthand about this stuff. There’s a lady on the way toward Charleston, Madame Peabody she calls herself, who does card readings. I had one done one time just to see what it was all about. Had one of those funny decks with a hanged man and the fool and all in it. Cost me $20 bucks to find out I was unlucky in love. Not like everybody within thirty miles don’t know that already. Should have just saved my money.”
“The Tarot. They’re called tarot cards. And yes, they’re pretty popular with local charlatans who prey on the uneducated.”
“She certainly preyed on me, so I guess she qualifies. But only that one time. Do you carry a deck around with you? Do they really work, or is it all just so much bull corn?”
“Of course they work. But only in the hands of someone who is not only knowledgeable but also spiritually attuned. And who works at it. I don’t suppose any of those apply to Madam Peabody.” Chai reached into her bag and pulled out her box of cards as she spoke. “Each person has their own energy, of course. That energy is transferred into the cards when the person handles them. The expert reader then reads the person’s own energy which has been made manifest in the lay of the cards.”
“Wow. Madam Peabody used a lot of fancy words, but I think they were just to impress me, because they didn’t explain anything like you just did.”
“I have just enough time for a quick reading before I have to head back, if you’d care to verify what Madam Peabody told you.”
“Sure, Miz Chai. That’s really sweet of you.” Sabrina took the deck of cards and mixed them by taking the middle section out and putting it on the bottom a half dozen times. When she handed the cards back, Chai closed her eyes for a few moments, and then dealt out five cards in the shape of a cross. Then she sat back for a minute while she studied the cards.
“Sabrina, I’m sorry to say, Madame Peabody was pretty much right on. This card in the center, the Five of Cups, features a downcast figure that represents sorrow and solitude. Beside it is the Knight of Pentangles, but he’s upside down, like he’s riding off. Or maybe that’s good. And the Seven of Swords here on the bottom, with the man burdened down by them, obviously means there’s a burden on your soul from all of this. But I would interpret the Presence of Temperance as a very good sign. It means that you don’t have to settle for being unlucky in love, you can change it yourself if you want to. The happy juggler on the Two of Pentangles strengthens that. It might represent a new love, but it always represents balance and duality. So there’re the keys to change: balance and duality.”
“Wow, Miz Chai. You got all that from just five cards? You must really be one of those people who are—how did you put it?—knowledgeable and spiritually attuned. And you didn’t even charge me twenty bucks, unless you just haven’t given me the bad news yet.”
“No, dear. That was on the house.”
“Here, can I try?” Without waiting for permission Sabrina mixed the cards back into the deck, closed her eyes for a minute, then dealt five out in the same shape as before.
“Look, the High Priestess is in the center. That’s pretty heavy, particularly since I only got the crappy Five of Cups. And here right beside her is the Two of Cups, which shows two people in love, or in heat, or something. I’m not too sure, being the ignorant and unattuned sort. But then there’s all these sticks. The Eight of Wands and the Ten of Wands both. That’s eighteen sticks, even if I didn’t do so good in math. That can’t be good, them piling up like a funeral pyre or something. And the Seven of Cups, and seven is for sure a lucky number and all, and cups are like your cup is full of blessings. Except look, these are all upside down. So maybe, not so full after all.”
Sabrina put her forefinger in the middle of her forehead. “So what does this mean? Let me guess, you tell me if I’m right. I think it means you’re sleeping with this guy ten years younger than you are and you don’t really love him, you’re just using him, but all those sticks are piling up. Am I right? Oops, there’s a customer calling me. I’d better get back to business.”
Sabrina hustled off, leaving Chai with her mouth open.
But not for long. I expected her to be mad, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. “My goodness. What was that? Rick, I believe that I have been thoroughly played the fool in front of all your friends by a charming hustler posing as a waitress.” She shook her head. “Well, it’s my own damned fault. I should have known better. Here, let me get the check. I’d like to leave that young lady a fat tip.”
As she was getting into her car, I asked her if I’d see her the next weekend.
“You bet your ass. We already knew I was sleeping with this guy ten years younger than I am and that I don’t really love him but am just using him. Better make hay before all those sticks pile up and she decides to take you away.”
“She’s living with somebody else at the moment and has no more than a flirting interest in me.”
“Yeah, well. We women don’t always know what we want, do we?”