Thomm Quackenbush, author

06.28.05 7:50 p.m.

We don't receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take us or spare us.  

-Marcel Proust

 



Previously in Xenology: Xen and Emily, the artful Pagans, met Dives Dives.

Free Spirit

Friday came as it must after a long week of urging my students to turn in their final papers, which make up the bulk of their grade despite being only six paragraphs and that they have been working exclusively on the papers for a solid month. Still, many will fail the course for the simple reason that they couldn't be bothered to turn anything in.

Friday, more personally important, was the day when I would drive to Maryland with Dives Dives to join Emily at Free Spirit Gathering. Free Spirit is a week long festival for Pagans and the Pagan friendly held every June. I had never previously attended, though Emily considered it something of a Mecca and tried to make the pilgrimage with her clan.

Dives Dives arrived straight from work and, in the midst of my very public driveway, changed from her conservative jeans into an exotic, fitting yellow skirt and put on jewelry. She was otherwise well appointed, her brown hair held back in a scarf and wearing a becoming blouse. Afterward, she seemed a little more herself, a bit more comfortable in her skin.

It seemed so long since I had last seen her and almost funny that I would be spending several hours in a car inches away from her.

Dives Dives was by no means a stranger and I was anxiously pleased for the chance to get to know her better and give intellectual justification to my soul's assurance that she was a dear friend.

The drive was long - five hours - but the company wonderful. Dives Dives is one of those people I would like without explanation and I did. That she exist in a proximal space to me is usually enough, similar but not as strongly as I feel toward Zack, Kei, or Melissa. The drive gave us time and reason to get to know the other. A five hour drive could have very easily been torture, especially given that it was supposed to be a three hour drive. Had there even been an additional person in the car, it would not have been so pleasant. But we could just talk honestly, each confession yielding favorable results and new anecdotes, a consensus at the constitution of the world.

We spent much of our time talking about Pagans we both knew and our experiences with witchcraft. Hers have been bracing, given that she spent time living with two drug-addicted chaos worshipers. Mine are generally well chronicled here, the possessing Anubis and resurrection of lightning bugs being rare unusual spots.

We arrived at the festival well after sunset, in the fine town of Darlington. Dives Dives adopted her Georgian accent at the sight of the town's name, as she had spent some time in the South, and drawled out vague mocking. When I quakingly admitted that I found her Georgia peachiness sexy, she expounded in the accent on how there are no Georgia peaches, though many streets in Georgia pretend there are. If I got Dives Dives and Emily in a room together, Dives Dives drawling Georgian and Emily lilting Scottish, I just might pop for sheer exuberance.
Dives Dives and Emily  
You have no idea how much I love this picture

I dropped my pack at the tent when I found it and made my way to Emily, who was watching her clan mate getting a tattoo of a fairy on her back. I sidled up, silent until Emily felt me brush against her back. She was mid-sentence with one of her clan mates, but she spun and kissed me hard, her hands holding my face tenaciously.

She wept openly and without embarrassment. "I've been through so much this week, opened up so much... dealt with a lot I didn't know I needed to deal with," she sobbed. More kisses resulted and I held her until the tears stopped flowing.

We walked around the grounds, though all of the vendors were closing up for the night. Everything was in laminate tarp tents with the vendors' actual tents behind. The goods seemed peculiar and I looked forward to seeing them in the light of day.

There were naked people, of course. Quite a lot of them, but that was to be expected. They behaved in a very mathematical way, the unlikelihood of wanting to see them naked multiplied by proximity to fire or music multiplied by the darkness. They are free spirits, after all, and I knew in advance that nudity was par for the course. Fortunately, an adolescence spent with an internet connection had inured me to immediate arousal at the sight of breasts (particularly some bared) and I was generally ambivalent to them after the first five.

The next day, as point of fact, I would swim with a completely nude fourteen-year-old girl. This is a fantasy to no one whose name is not Humbert Humbert. The dear girl, who was tangentially part of the pack of children that belonged to Emily's clan, was so far into being a fourteen year old girl that she had braces and the intermediate stages of secondary sex characteristics; it was effortless to see both the little girl and the young woman in her face and parts south. To me, she was a girl that could have been my student. She was very sweet and got on well with the herd of podlings Emily and I apparently volunteered to bring to the pool with us.

I proclaimed to Emily that I would never bring a teenage boy to such a festival, though the ones I had seen had all been clothed, potentially embarrassed by the awkwardly changing bodies beneath Green Day shirts and black jeans. While the naiad watching over the smaller children was the only teenage girl who was consistently taking advantage of the relaxed attitude toward nudity, teen boys are prone to erections at the sight of something softly conical. Actual teenage breasts would be enough to cause them a significant drop in overall blood pressure as the bulk of their hemoglobin and white blood cells would be occupying front row center (well, lower center) seats in hopes of a show.

I must say to the defense of the nudists that I saw nary a hard-on among them, but I was also much in the habit of only acknowledging that people had faces.
Xen and Emily  
Catharsis

Despite Emily initial catharsis at the sight of me, she soon grew distant. I felt as though I were intruding upon her experience with the divine. The night before I came, I had a dream wherein Emily cheated on me at Free Spirit and sent her scruffy looking lover to explain why I should share her. Obviously, as it was a boy, this dream was decidedly unlikely but it jarred me nonetheless.

Her distance made me feel more the stranger here, as though this was a summer camp and I had arrived two weeks too late. I am used to being something of an outside observer, which is part of the reason I am called Xen (xeno being the Latin root for outsider or stranger), but it stings when I feel I am disconnected from Emily. I realized then my dream was not about a boy, but about this place itself. She was much in love with this festival and it wanted me to share her. More accurately, it was possible that she liked the festival more than she did me at the moment, though she loved me.

Later in the night, Emily would reveal that she was distant only because she feared that Dives Dives would become my new best friend, supplanting Emily. This is patently ridiculous. I am fond of Dives Dives, but she is not interested in supplanting Emily nor would it be possible. I have loved Emily for four years; a car ride with an intriguing girl is not likely to shake that. Also, I can be dear friends with more than one person at a time, having spent most of my life doing just that.

Emily was volunteered to baby-sit her friends' child in order to give them time to be alone in their tent. We brought the child to a concert going on at the pavilion. Free Spirit always has some activity going on, even as the night progressed toward the small hours. Our ward quickly doffed her clothes - her habit even outside Pagan events - and began to do a dance not terribly dissimilar from falling on the ground repeatedly.

In the midst of the adult dancers was a tiny blonde girl in a pink hula skirt. Despite being six, she had the sort of rhythm and natural finesse on the dance floor that I fear I shall never have. I think, in fact, that most people will never have what I can only imagine is her inborn skill.

"You are quite the dancer," I stated, leaning over. "You should teach me some moves sometime."

This was either very much the right or wrong thing to say, depending on one's perspective. The girl immediately took me up on it, first dancing and watching me mimic her, which I did as successfully as I could manage given that I am bereft of such coordination. Then she grabbed my hands and proceeded to make me dance with her for tens of minutes, though I was hardly averse. This was the first moment where I actually felt like I might halfway belong here, amongst bare breasted strangers and more concentrated pentacles than I'd ever before encountered. This was a bit of magic I could process.

Mekayla, for that was my tiny dancer's name, quickly wore me out, though she made it very clear that her font of energy knew no bounds. Emily and our ward were likewise exhausted and we carried her up to the camp again and Emily put her to sleep with a spontaneously created story.

"You know what I found strange?" I asked Emily when she rediscovered me.

"What?" she said. I couldn't detect the subtext to her question, but I imagined there might be an edge to it. I was trying to bite my tongue and not make a wry comment that would earn me a withering glance from Emily. To some degree, these were Emily's people and I had to earn my place in this context as well as in the rest of Emily's life. As such, no mocking.
M with her drum  
Little drummer girl

"There was a woman there, quite badly disabled. She was in a motorized wheelchair and seemed to be about as otherwise mobile as Stephen Hawking."

"Right, I saw her too."

"It didn't occur to me that she would be Pagan. I mean, obviously I intellectually know that all sorts of people are Pagans, but it wasn't something I had ever considered before."

I waited for the scorn, but Emily just nodded. "I do understand what you mean. There are some midgets... little people... here and I was sort of surprised."

"Yes, that is it exactly. These people do not immediately fit into our preconceived notions." I had not yet proved myself, I knew, but I had shared and she understood me. That was a good step.

After enjoying the privacy of our tent, Emily instructed me that we would be going to the nightly bonfire. The night before, Emily had drummed all night at the fire, bring up the sun. She was given the honor of putting the last log on the fire and, though I could not get the details, she caused the assembled twenty-five people to cry. She soon after fell asleep sitting in front of the altar at her campsite.

I was told that I was not to bring my Palm Pilot and certainly not my camera to the bonfire. I wandered around the thirty foot circle of white sand on which the fire crackled and spat. I did not have a drum, nor did I think I would like to be a drummer here. Their job is too demanding as they are expected to keep the beat going.

I watched the dancers undulate and spasm in various degrees of frenzy. I stared at the flicker of the fire, the space created by people getting in the way of the light. I did not easily find a place, though I did find a scrap of paper in my pocket I had been previously using to remind myself which students I had given lunch detention. I found a flat surface and scribbled important reminders. Thoughts and feelings and bits of associated memory, written small by a man who is not used to his own handwriting.

I studied the few attractive naked dancers, and the degree of nudity was expectedly increasing as the fire flared hotter, the drumming roared louder, and the night grew to its full darkness. There were no stirrings. Only one person elicited the slightest flare of the sun within me, and she happened to be a fully dressed belly dancer. The flick of her hip was distilled erotica, a practiced sexuality. Naked people are just people without their knickers on and there is no implication of sex. Belly dancers know precisely how to use their bodies most efficiently.

Sex is not far from the minds of many of the festival goers. As I sat and watched two white geese sleep in the pond, a shadow approached me, smelling of the perfume of some high school fling.

"Are those for real?" I asked the shadow, or the girl who cast it.

"I am not certain. I will assume they are, but approach them with caution nonetheless." This I immediately did to be greeted with two white, horned heads rising.

"Yes, very much alive and ready to attack," I stated, backing away to let them return to their rest.

She nodded thoughtfully and I wondered if this interaction was going the way she wanted it. Instead, I asked what she felt the geese thought of all of this.

"Oh, I think they are in love with the energy of it all and the beauty. Just look how close they are."

"I think they believe we are mentally ill and are keeping a close watch on us," I retorted.

She smiled and I think would have persisted in talking with me, but I went back to looking at the geese rather than her make-up blackened eyes.

When I told Emily about this, she assured me that I was very much being sexually propositioned, or would have been in short order. So it was not merely my ego this time. Emily then revealed that she had been propositioned so often and so clumsily that she would react with violent if anyone who wasn't me even suggested sex at her.

One of the fixtures of the bonfire is a man who Emily assured me I had to witness. He is well over six feet tall and had a diverted frenzy to him, made more conspicuous by his unashamed nudity.

He lives only for the bonfire. No one sees him walking around during the day and he is certainly conspicuous even with all of his clothes on. But every night, all night, he is before the fire, dancing as though no one were watching or existed. His ecstasy is in the flames and he is alone with it.

I also saw the woman in the wheelchair, though she was now naked. She could not have done this to herself, though she was happy about it (though perhaps this was merely a facial paralysis), and it seemed startlingly strange to imagine that one of her friends had stripped her for the bonfire. Were I in her situation, I think I would be quite grateful to have the sort of friends who would do that for me. Though my friends might just strip me because they found it amusing.

Walking from the bonfire that night, I said, "You know M, I am nothing special here."

"That's not true. I think it is the opposite; everyone here is really special."

"If I may misquote The Incredibles, when everyone is super, no one is." This earned me a hit.

The next morning, Emily was delighted that I was willing to wear a sarong. She had told one of her clan mates that it was her goal to make me wear one in the next ten years.

"You know how you could have accomplished that goal more quickly? Ask me. I do not mind sarongs so long as I am covered. Plus, this will give me increased freedom of movement during the dance class we are taking. Now if I only had pockets..."
Xen in a dress  
You can't see it, but I am wearing a skirt

While this was technically camping, given that Emily's clan had opted against reserving a whole cabin to themselves (though they were more than enough to have done so), we were hardly roughing it. We were an encampment to ourselves. We had a large kitchen area, many coolers functioning as refrigerators, several tables, a garbage area, separate recycling, a gas range and a traditional barbecue. This is how I believe modern nomads must live. We were only an internet connection away from my calling this home.

In our wanderings through the commercial area of Free Spirit, Emily returned time and again to a booth staffed by an older couple named Nybor and Elspeth. You have to deal with named like this if you are going to manage at Free Spirit, so I mentally renamed them Nick and Elizabeth. Nybor was evidently the artist of all the prints contained within, though Elspeth referred to the very present Nybor only in the third person so I was unaware the gray haired gentleman sitting in the plastic lawn chair was he. Elspeth, for her part, exuded this very primal sort of wisdom. If you have ever seen The Dark Crystal - and shame on you if you haven't - Elspeth is the Augra.

When we entered, I looked at the table, on which sat tarot cards. While I have only had success reading with the Phantasmagorical Theater Tarot, a deck that looks in no small way like it was made by a children's cartoonist who took acid in a bondage club, I enjoy collecting new decks. This particular deck was three hundred dollars and I needed to see how they justified this. As I opened the book containing photocopies, Elspeth darted over faster than I expected.

"Before you go any further, how old are you?"

"Twenty-four?"

"Are you offended by images of the erotic?"

"Would I be here if I was?"

Then she smiled and began to speak to Emily. I had passed her test. The deck did not follow ay Tarot format I had seen before, containing such cards as The Manipulator and The Slave. It was not an erotic deck, a point Elspeth had belabor to Isaac Bonewits, an elder of Emily's clan and international author who is generally fixated on sex and who had written the introduction to the book explaining how to use the cards properly.

Emily's particular and specific fascination with the wares was a print of two rock faces kissing as a nude redhead bathes below. It was unquestionably well done, color added to a black canvas. If it was worth $118 for a reproduction, I am not prepared to assume, but Emily felt that it was. All art is built on the assumption of worth, in the end.

This purchase had earned Emily an invitation to Elspeth's birthday party in Virginia later in the summer, though Emily might have been invited anyway. After we left the sanctity of their booth, Emily explained that Elspeth had taken a shine to her during a class on death journeys. Emily could not muster the right head to trance with the group and this somehow endeared her to the old woman.

From what Emily tells me, Elspeth and Nybor constitute the elder of elders in a certain sort of Pagan community. While we as a people tend to respect age and equate it with wisdom, I did not know any of this before. Prior to coming to the festival, I would likely have guessed that these names belonged to an alternative band or to Pagans, but would have known nothing for certain. It's a bit odd to think one of the elder of elders is a taciturn and colorblind artist who sits in a lawn chair. I quite like the idea of it.

When Emily boastfully showed Dives Dives her purchase, Dives Dives actually wept at the beauty of the picture. How could we not love her for that?

Emily, Dives Dives, and I went into the shopping area to divert our attention by spending some more money. As we were passing the tattoo tent, however, they thought to stop in and check on a member of their clan who was getting a tattoo of Ganesha's head that spanned from his shoulder to just above his floating ribs. He had actually twice taken Emily's spot in the tattooing line, once the night before, though he gave it up when it got late and he got tired, and again this day. To further the indignity of it, he did not come to the festival wanting to get a tattoo and only opted to do this as a lark. How getting an enormous tattoo of an elephant god's head on your chest is a lark is a subject beyond my comprehension, but there we stood watching the artist beginning to add the shading. This anecdote should serve as something of an indication of this man, as he had apparently rubbed a few people in the clan the wrong way before.
Little Naked Indian Boy  
Little Naked Indian Boy and Xen

Emily, it was certain, was more than slightly annoyed given that she had been planning her tattooing for months. She intended to get the Sanskrit letters for strong, brave, wise, and all victorious on her back. When she told me, I joked that the character for humble must have been taken, but I wholly felt that this would be the right tattoo for her. Then this clan member got in Emily's way to get the Remover of Obstacles on his chest. This was not so bad, as Emily had changed her mind as to what sort of tattoo she wanted to get.

There were some clan members, such as his wife, in the booth when we arrived. We stood near him, giving him sympathy and energy. More accurately, several members, but not all, of the clan present did this. Then Dives Dives, the daring blackbird, began a chant to Ganesha. No, that isn't quite true either. Dives Dives sang out a prayer that echoed through her. Then another voice picked it up. Then another. And another. Then mine.

I am no singer. My voice, which may suit the occasional joke and works well at insinuating subtext, was not made to be melodic. Nonetheless, I sang out, watching this man grimace and sigh as the needles added more ink to his skin. We chanted for two hours, until the tattoo was finished. People we had never met came from all over the grounds to join us. People appeared with drums. A small girl squeakily played her new recorder. These strangers gave their time and energy to console and assist a man to whom they would never speak. Their voices joined ours. I do not think I can do justice to the sense of camaraderie this demonstrated to me.

This is obviously not the normal sort of tattoo shop. There were tapestries of Ganesha and the artist not working on the clan member lit sage to smudge the area. The artists announced the tattoos to anyone who would listen, describing the qualities that lead the person they were working on to get them. This was a ritual to them. Think of how much the artists must give of themselves for each piece. This clan member's tattooing had to have been going on for many hours before we arrived and for two more, these artists sang with us.

The best singers by far were Emily and Dives Dives, not that I imagine that anyone else would have been in the state of mind to notice. Most people do not have the personal emotional investment in two stunningly beautiful singers, though. Their voices seemed to find and compliment one another in the din of other chanters, though I do not feel that they knew they were doing this. They glorified one another innately.

After the tattooing and chanting, we felt a lot closer to the clan member than we had before. We did not necessarily like him any better, but we knew him more.

There was still shopping to be done and I had told Emily that I wanted to get Dives Dives a gift for driving me, though Dives Dives insisted time and again that it was a pleasure to have me and that the drive would have been intolerable without my company. Emily happened upon a labradorite necklace in a booth and called me over to it. Labradorite, a luminescent blue and green stone, is Dives Dives favorite and I bought it immediately.

I found Dives Dives looking at a tree full of ceramic fairies and put the necklace around her with a kiss on the cheek, both of which she delightedly received.

The only class Emily and I managed to take together was the Art of Sensual Dance. After having danced with the little girl the night before and despite my very sore muscles, I wanted desperately to dance. We convinced Dives Dives to bring one of her friends and take the class with us.

Before going off to our dancing class, we watched the beginning of the children's graduation from Lady Morgana RavenSilver's (or some similarly witchy name) School of Witchcraft and Wizardry Which Certainly Has Nothing to Do with Any Popular Series of Children's Books So Don't Sue. They left most of the name out, but it was well implied. For the week that I was not there, the children had been able to take classes on all manner of subjects, such as candle making, creating a book of shadows, the use of stones and herbs, and the like. Before the clan's campsite stood fifteen ankle-biters in black robes. Little Orien was utterly nude, aside from an open robe and I had taken to calling her my Little Naked Indian Boy.

At the class, our first indication that something very wrong was occurring came when the instructor told the men to sit down. That was the only instruction the men would be given. The women, on the other hand, were told to raise their hands above their heads and move their hips. Then grind.

This was the Art of Getting a Lap Dance. Our instructor was a stripper... I mean "dancer" who had many years of experience. Her husband was a strip club bouncer. This was fine and she seemed like a very pleasant woman. We were just a bit sketchy on what we were supposed to learn and I was so uncomfortable that I couldn't stop joking. It was so bad, even I found me annoying.

Dives Dives and her friend beat a hasty retreat because they were not getting very much, nor were they lesbians (lesbianism being a concept that escaped the class's organizer). Emily and I soldiered on for five more minutes until we realized how quickly this was becoming an orgy. A sixty-year-old woman told her husband that this was his retirement present and he began to suckle her newly bare breasts.

Upon hearing this, Emily and I immediately made good use of the side door and were more than a little pleased to rejoin Dives Dives at the camp site. Dives Dives was making the clan couscous and seitan, which was crunchy organic and actually quite good.

This constituted my only real meal at the festival. There is very little need or interest in eating at Free Spirit, as far as I had seen. Emily had lived for a day on only three grapes and a few M&M's a man at the drum circle had given to her, actually describing it as one of the most satisfying meals she ever had. I can't give you a solid answer as to why this is, but food just did not seem very important. I lived for the weekend on two sandwiches, a bowl of Dives Dives's organic concoction (which, again, was delicious), and a dozen tortilla chips. Which is probably a week's food in some parts of the world, so I'll just move on.

Over my meal, Orien (the father of the Little Naked Indian Boy) approached and said, "You know, it is like you've been here all week, except we've been missing you all week." I was flattered by this truth, as I felt I had blended in well once I found my level. I was wearing a skirt made out of a dragon tapestry, after all, though I had my Superman boxers on underneath. Orien is a wonderful person overall, much in the habit of quite literally giving people the shirt of his back. He once gave Emily a new skull mala because he just knew it was something she needed.

Emily was worried that any change she encounters here would be reversed when she had to return to the mundane world of home. Here she knows her place. She is a deeply spiritual and wonderful woman. She is gorgeous, a personification of the goddess Brigid. She doesn't have to deal with wrestling emus or skittish greyhounds. She doesn't have bills. When she is back in New York, she is effectively homeless for the next two weeks. There is not vegetarian cuisine in the nearest cooler. She cannot walk a few hundred yards and be in a class about goddess archetypes. How can she be the person she loves being outside of the stimuli that provoked her reaction? Can memory and will be enough?

Emily reclined in a swinging chair that her clan mates had set up in a tree. She was crying, though embarrassedly, not the pure cathartic tears that flowed when she saw me.

"I have no place to go," she wept. "I don't want to have to sleep in the shelter. It is dark and... there are noises at night."

"Why don't you ask Christine if you can sleep there?"

"And the dog will be so scared. I can't do that to Quest. I miss having a home!"

"Why don't you ask Christine?"

"Everything is so perfect here. I feel loved and protected. I don't want to have to go back to work. I don't want to have to sleep at the animal shelter."

"You should ask Christine."

"Do you think I should ask Christine if maybe they can clear off a space in Orien's studio? I could just sleep on the floor."

"Yes, I think that is a very good idea, Emily."

Emily dried her tears and asked her friend Christine if she could sleep on the floor of Orien's studio.

"No," Christine said, "But we can clear a space for you and the dog in the house. You would be a most honored guest."

Afterward, Emily felt more comfortable in the world, as she was a most honored guest.

During the drive back with Dives Dives, I felt as though I had known her all of my life, save for the fact that our previous lives still needed to be uncoiled in anecdote. I worried that fast friendship would equate with short friendship and we promised one another that this would not be the case. Over conversations about dressing Emily up in sexy clothes, planning road trips, and all our prior loves, I felt surer that our bond wasn't just the product of a weekend and ten hours in the car and not simply because Emily sexually propositioned Dives Dives for some indeterminable point in the future. We both love Emily so. It is so spectacular to be around someone who sees Emily so similarly to the way I do, that would be bond enough to care about her.

When we arrived at my house, my mother was unpacking groceries. Dives Dives got out of the car and hugged her, which pleased and confused her.

It was a good weekend.

Soon in Xenology: The further adventures of Dives Dives, Emily, and Xen.

last watched: Land of the Dead
reading: Under the Banner of Heaven
listening: Mix CDs I am making for Emily and Dives Dives. Completely different CDs with entirely different songs and contexts.

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.



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