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06.20.06 3:37 p.m.

My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.  

-Albert Einstein


Previously in Xenology: Xen and Emily were artful Pagans.

Free Spirit

It is discomfiting to think that I will no longer see nude people wandering through their sylvan enclave. Once you get used to the fact that most of the people you see will be shirtless at the very least and resign yourself to the fact that this isn't generally a sexually appealing proposition, you really forget about it. It takes about five minutes if you don't have the Stick of Puritan Forbearance shoved so far up your ass that you are coughing disapproving splinters; there is nothing surprising under most people's clothing.

Free Spirit Gathering is over and I am clinging to the vestiges of it. It feels like I have been away for weeks. I look out of the window at the library and am surprised at how little construction work has been done in my absence, forgetting that I only missed a single Friday. Emily had been at the festival since Tuesday; for her, it must feel like a month has passed. When I went away from home for any stretch of time, though especially the three times I did Summer Scholars (twice as a student, once as a residential advisor), I found myself transformed. For all of this growth and progress to ebb as I returned home and no longer had the stimuli of like minds and unusual freedom to explore myself was anticlimax. I feel I am a better vessel for this change now, the pitcher plant of theophany.

I drove down with a member of Emily's clan, Sara, whom I did not and do not feel I know very well. Last year, I went down with Dives Dives, with whom I then felt I was growing very close. Dives Dives was not going down to Free Spirit this year, though I have not spoken to her in any depth for months. Sara was the only one of the clan who was going down when it was most convenient for me and came highly recommended from Emily primarily because of this. Supposedly, they have very similar energy, but I know Emily and her energy well enough that I couldn't begin to figure out why this was. They seem to be very different, like comparing the fifth note of Beethoven's fifth symphony to a bowl of seedless grapes.

I did my best to break the ice. I have been in Pagan classes and circles with Sara before, have perused her bookshelves with intrigue and delight, and yet I could find so little about which I wanted to converse. We chatted a bit about music and ghosts, but the conversation waned after a few minutes and we sat in silence, listening to the string of disparate female musicians in her CD collection. Perhaps she felt the same about me, the boyfriend of one of her friends and clan members, but who was I really? Outside of the social lubricant that is Emily's presence, I struggle to be anything but a hysterical mute in the company of anyone I don't love on sight or with whom I do not already have a history.

I did not know Dives Dives getting into her car last year. I liked her well enough, but she was largely a comely stranger who was willing to pick me up. By the time we arrived at Free Spirit, I felt we were great friends. I am not sure either of us shut up on the way down to Darlington, Maryland, and I thought a similar change would come over Sara and I before we again stepped from the car, but it wasn't so.

When I arrived and made my way to the clan's campsite - it was in the same location and I had no trouble navigating in the gloaming light - I was aroused to see silhouetted by the fire the gyrating hips of some incredibly sexy woman wearing only a sarong as a dress. I am a sucker for dancers, much more so for belly dancers, and approached with great interest. When said belly dancer turned around and gave me a warm, passionate kiss, I was confident that this would rank as a better Free Spirit than last year.

"When did you learn to dance like that?" I gasped.

Emily smiled from under her twirling strawberry locks, "I took a belly dancing class today. You like?"

"Gods yes. More classes for you, young lady."

It had seemed much too long since I saw her and I found the distance difficult. Not only couldn't I see her, but I knew I could not contact her if I had a small trauma. I realized that I have grown remarkably codependent on Emily, for the idea that she is only a few dozen minutes in any direction if it becomes necessary. It makes work much more difficult when I cannot vent. Her month in Israel was going to prove an intense and not wholly welcomed test.

After several minutes of kissing to remind the other of the shape of our lips, and after she impressed upon me the importance of stripping off of my jeans and t-shirt and wearing more Pagan garb (the Nepalese peasant shirt and a dragon sarong), we walked to the concert pavilion to see the band Keva. On the stage was an older man playing his fiddle. He had apparently been far too interested in Emily, as had some large man who was part of Free Spirit's administration, two men grossly out of their respective leagues even were they not twice her age. Flirtation and sexuality are a common interchange at Free Spirit, especially for attractive women. I only got explicitly flirted with only once my entire time at the festival, while I was shopping alone. I was not out of the woman's league, though was definitely not her preferred gender. The rest of the time, it was either clear I was very taken or that I was busy with events below described.

The man's music, though adept, did not interest me at that moment and the movements of the nude Pagans around me less so. "Do you think they dance so badly because they are Pagans or because they are mostly white and thus without rhythm?"

"They are enjoying themselves," Emily defended, though quickly added, "If this is how Pagans dance, I guess my father must have been a Pagan and just never realized it."

While many people are naked, there is an instinct - at least for me - not to look below their necks any more than you would were they fully dressed. What is ironic is the impulse does not extend to actually being clothed. I laughed to myself as I sat in a field, appreciatively looking over the body of a girl dressed in a tank top and shorts, absently wondering what she looked like naked, when fifty feet away were a pool full of people who were totally unclothed. The swimmers were uninteresting, where was their mystery?

We left the concert for the bonfire, which is the center of Emily's Free Spirit experience once the sun sets. In the center of a twenty-five foot circle of sand sits a pile of wood. Its arrangement is far from haphazard, a fact that becomes abundantly clear if one arrives before it is lit. Each night, the bonfire is a different wooden sculpture, the sort of thing a giant child would build with logs. Emily loves it best because she is a drummer; she had just bought a $300 drum, giving away her old one to a clan member in exchange for a new drum bag, and was eager to break it in. In the drums, Emily finds her spirit, something very ancestral and primal, despite the fact that her ancestors were all wandering Jews. Perhaps the proximity to sand is where she finds her spirit.

Pagan drumming is different from normal drumming in its intent. While the drummer for your local garage band wants to follow and compliment the rhythm of the guitarist, our ritual drumming is the point. One person sets the beat and another follows and compliments that. There may be additional instruments, flutes and bells, but they are subservient to the beat of drums. The focus - the person everyone else follows - shifts wordlessly and unconsciously. It can be utterly ornate, the sort of beat a symphony couldn't reproduce exactly without much practice, or it can be as simple as a heartbeat. No one decides when or how it changes, but it does in an instant. There is much science stating that the syncopated rhythms of tribal drumming reacts with the human brain and can produce elevated or altered states; millennia of anecdotal evidence supports this conjecture. This ecstatic sound and movement defines the experience of the bonfire.

The drumming that first night, however, sucked. Not merely because they are my people, Emily's group was the only thing that made it worthwhile that night. There is a man - Freeheart - who exists for the fire. He will dance all night, utterly naked and composed of nothing but six and a half feet of pale sinew. One gets the feeling that he could dance to a metronome, to the sound of rain on a tin roof. He was sitting, frustrated, on a log when Emily's group arrived with their drums. Once set up, they took over and largely controlled the flow of the drumming, the weaker drummers largely giving over to their ability. Freeheart stood and began dancing, his arms raised worshipfully above his head as through to draw in the fire. When Emily's clan went back up, the drumming was discordant again and Freeheart sat down. Last year, I do not think I once saw him sitting.

As I am not a drummer or dancer, I spent my time at the fire talking to Deborah. She has published several well regarded Pagan books (The Way or Four, Elements of Ritual) as well as the Ultimate James Bond Fan Book and therefore seemed an excellent person to chat up about literary agents. Whether it seems evident or no, I am coming close to finishing Delirious and would very much like to be ready for the next step when that happens. Emily has warned me away from publishing on demand, as it seems wrong and desperate to her. Though I do not think she has read the revisions I've brought her, she has faith enough in my book that she feels an actual publisher will want it. The main problem is that, aside from an imprint of Penguin book specifically soliciting fantasy novels, it is impossible to get one's foot in the door without an agent. Deborah's advice boiled down to the following facts:

  • Anyone who wants my money is a crook (I suspected as much)
  • The query letter is my only chance to get them to bother with me
  • I should make sure to explain what trends my book exploits that have made money
  • I should make clear that I am writing more, as too many authors publish only one book and then disappear off the face of the Earth
  • I might have to wait a long time between getting an agent and getting published.
"Discord" and "Duck" start with the same letter. Coincidence?

I joined Emily at the pool for my first morning there. In exchange for a couple of hours a day watching the pool, Emily was given free admission to the festival. That morning, she was delightedly annoyed to see that the pool had been filled with two hundred rubber ducks while people ate their breakfast. Speculation as to the perpetrators of this act quickly and summarily fell to the Discordians, a Pagan sect honoring the goddess of chaos Eris. They are largely a fun bunch, spreading their discord through practical jokes and nonsense rather than anything genuinely harmful. Their culpability seemed confirmed moments after accusation when we found a copy of the Principia Discordia, their irreverent religious text, in a pool chair. Let me revise that sentence: when we found my copy of the Principia.

"But I have a copy at home," Emily protested.

"Yes, but it's not that copy."

"But it's exactly the same."

"Yes, but it's not that copy," I replied and saw begrudging understanding in her eyes.

As Emily had to keep her eyes of the children, I was sent into the pool to gather what ducks I could before they choked the pool filters. Emily pointed out that she could get them out with the pool skimmer, but where is the sport in that? We arranged these ducks on the edge of the pool and took pictures of them for posterity, before carefully selecting twenty or so for members of Emily's clan and a bride and groom duck to be the cake topper at our wedding.

Since I was in the pool anyway and Emily still had an hour and a half left to her shift, I took to grabbing children and - with their permission - throwing them around in the pool. My main nutritive instinct toward children is mild sadism - picking them up and threatening to drop them and the like - which makes me a very good uncle but a poor father.

I loved these children. Pagan children have the best names: Tsunami, Shakti, Orien Rose, Caspian. There is this real feeling that every child is the responsibility of the group. Whenever I saw a kid wandering the campground, I would turn to Emily and say, "Is that one of ours?" I wasn't sure how these children earned this designation or to whom they were biologically related, but helped and harassed any of the kids that she said belonged to the clan. When I went shopping later, I saw Tsunami and one of her friend pestering some man as to why he was wearing a loincloth.

"I guess because it's comfortable and I-"

Tsunami interrupted, "Is it to hide your banana and nuggets?"

I darted over to the booth and chided, "Tsunami! Where do you learn these things?!"

"Do you know what a banana and nuggets are?"

"Yes, Tsunami, but you shouldn't be asking strangers that."

"Do you have a dollar?" she asked, pawing through a basket of charms at an adjoining booth run by a lesbian couple.

"Why do you need a dollar?"

"I want an Almond Joy."

"I'm not giving you a dollar so you can buy candy. If you want something worthwhile, I would think about it."

She grinned up at me. This was the answer she wanted. "Then we are going to follow you around until you give us a dollar."

I smirked and shook my head. "You have picked the wrong person. One, I don't have pants on, therefore no pockets and no wallet so no dollars. Two, I don't care if you follow me around."

Tsunami placed her hand in mine. "We're going to the bat house."

"Is that where Batman lives?"

"No! There isn't a Batman there."

"Then what is the point?"

They did indeed make good on their promise to follow me around for a while, past Enochian sigils in neon sidewalk chalks, until I got bored of them and pointed them at a couple of women carrying purses. The women were not as grateful that I set these small beasts upon them, but I didn't doubt for a moment that Tsunami and her friend would be fine following these people around the campground, just as they were more or less fine when I found them. I couldn't bring them back to my campground because I didn't know who their parents were or if they would be there. The campground is full of these children, but I only acknowledged the ten or so tots that were impressed upon me at the pool and any kids with whom those children were playing.

There were also teenagers, several of who were familiar but in a vague way. They were self-reliant enough that I didn't have to care which belonged to the clan. One might feel some concern about teenagers in a setting full of naked people and classes on sexuality - the latter accessible only to those eighteen and up - but these kids, as I persisted in saying, are really good eggs. Everyone in the clan's boundaries from twelve to fifteen was dressed - sometimes overdressed considering the heat - and behaved perfectly. They didn't have to be clothed or quite so angelic, but this seemed to be their default setting. They are much harder to pick up and toss around and have trouble discussing literature outside the realm of teen wizards, so my capability for interaction with them is mild joking and teasing.
Tattooing one of our clan.

The main event for Emily's clan was ritual tattooing at the resident tattoo tent. It started out years ago as a few people in the clan getting tattoos one day and has since grown to a three-day event which, when totaled, added up to 21 hours of clan members getting tattooed by these two artists. It is not merely getting ink done, in the parlance, but hours of chanting and support as the recipient of the body modification cries and wails, infrequently because of the physical pain. Tattooing is a catharsis and you will not find them getting tats of Tweetybird or Mickey Mouse.

Hearing stifled cries, a woman ran over to the tattooing tent and nestled herself into the proceedings, yelling for a clan member to cry and let it out. I resented her intrusion; she is a stranger, not clan and this is not for her. Then I saw who it was and was all the more annoyed. I met this woman about a decade ago, when I was a teenager and she was at least a decade older than me. I do not know if that is a fact, so much of what she said was lies. I acted in her production of Rocky Horror Picture Show, an event that was written up in the local paper, not groundlessly, as child pornography. After this, much of the cast decided they wished to continue acting in Rocky Horror. I and my friend in the cast squarely did not wish to volunteer our time, money, effort and talent to travel all over the state so socially maladroit freaks could make lecherous remarks at us instead of figuring out how to behave within a normal social context, which seemed especially to be the point of the floor show. She decided this was a great personal insult and hated me, particularly, for posting to an internet site than I was interested in auditioning for plays that weren't Rocky Horror. It was fine that she hated me for something so ridiculous, amusing really. However, she then attacked me in front of several witnesses at the Haunted Mansion, trying to sexually assault me and biting my neck hard enough to leave marks (I believe I punched her in the head until she got off of me, since she was more than double my weight). All this earned her was a ban from the property, though were the genders reversed, she would now have to report to the police every time she moved. I told her in no uncertain terms that I wanted her to stay the hell away from me. Soon after, she insisted I summoned gigantic demons to throw her around the room in hopes of killing her, amassed younger teenager followers who believed her and claimed to put curses upon me to no effect, spread rumors that I raped my first serious girlfriend once the woman won that girl's new boyfriend over to her camp, convinced my younger brother to act as a spy and report to her everything I did, and, when called on it, lied by insisting she had inoperable and terminal brain cancer thus all of her actions should be excused. All of this happened when she was supposedly twenty-five, the age I am now. I cannot begin to imagine the world in which I would believe any of this was justifiable against another human being nor would I now expend my energy upon befriending, seducing, or demonizing fifteen-year-olds instead of interacting with people my own age. I feel sick just trying to imagine this mindset.

I related all of this to Emily in five words, two of them expletives, and she explained my discomfort to Orien and Christine. They said that this woman was someone else, that I was mistaken. I looked at Emily, assuring her that I knew damned well who that was and I didn't care who she was claiming to be now. They said, in essence, that she had mentioned going through a bad phase (she spent at least three years trying to start a war with me while I laughed her off, I do not know how many years prior or since fell under this umbrella of "bad phase") but that she was all better now. I don't believe a damned word of it, even if they do. I want to believe in the capacity for human change, but that assumes a degree of humanity that I feel she lacked. She was and I must assume still is a sociopath, a liar, and a user. I don't forgive what she put me through and I won't let her screw with me or mine. She was horrid for the enjoyment and drama it brought to her life and didn't care who she hurt as long as it perpetuated her cycle and made people acknowledge her. It made her feel important and was apparently the only way she could muster attention. When someone builds their life upon lies, it is next to impossible to believe them even if they do say they are sorry, something she apparently has not felt the need to do. I sure she has built up an alternate history where she is the righteously aggrieved party rather than a disturbed human being. I did not see repentance and reformation in bursting into the tattooing tent and obstructing the support of our clan, yelling at people getting tattooed as though she had any right to invade this ritual; I saw someone trying their damnedest to be the center of attention in an event that had nothing to do with her. I saw it as her pathology.

I ignored this woman's presence, as Orien and Christine seemed to give their implicit permission for her to be there for their tattoos and I would not contradict that. Also, for full disclosure, I believed she would love nothing more than a confrontation so she could play the injured victim in front of her own clan. However, I made clear to Emily that if this woman was within three hundred feet when she was tattooed, I would calmly tell her to get the hell out of the tent in so many words and no more. Emily is sacred and I would not have this drama whore profane the moment for her self-aggrandizement. Emily said this was not a problem and that she would give the edict that her tattooing was explicitly open only to clan members, for herself more than for me.

I would later discover that this woman was in some way closely associated with the artists, whom I like and respect, and thereby Orien and Christine. It concerns me greatly. Either they believe she is someone good and worthy of association, which immediately makes me think she has fed them lies - whether or not she has - or they don't care that she isn't, which means they are not as holy as I assume them to be. I would rather that they were holy than that she was sociopath I knew, in fact cannot get myself to believe that they would associate with someone who behaved as ghastly as she did. They did not know her when I did, only after she moved to Maryland, most likely do not know her many sins and crimes, particularly against the underage. Perhaps she did turn over a new leaf there, finally unburdened from all the lies and drama she created as her cloak. Yet the issue comes back to the capacity for change and, even divorced from my negative emotions toward her, my intellect cannot trace where this woman has shown introspection, compassion, growth, repentance, or any of the other qualities my limited psychological and sociological training leads me to believe are essential prerequisites; when I called her a sociopath, I was using it in the clinical, not pejorative, sense and the DSM-IV-TR seems to agree by my reading of the situation. Anti-social personality disorder is next to impossible to treat, even with modern psychotherapy. Can I really believe such a person just got better with Pagan healing and good, old-fashioned sunshine? It is a logic problem I cannot quite resolve, but I defer to the holiness; that the artists are good rather than that she is not. Either way, I would willingly have no further contact with her. No matter how much the scorpion insists he won't sting the turtle as he carries the scorpion across the river, the turtle and scorpion always drown when the turtle forgets the scorpion's true nature.
That is one magic thigh!

Before the tattooing can begin, the person getting tattooed must give their intention. This can be silent but, as the point of this is transformation, they are almost always read aloud and explained to the group. A snake - already inked - was colored onto someone's back because of fear of abandonment, a peacock was etched onto a foot to heal problems within (though this last one confuses me a bit), a goddess was tattooed on an arm for feminine balance, a fairy was imprinted on a thigh to affirm to the woman her faith in her religion and marriage. The fairy was a surprise to me. One of the artists refused to ever again tattoo a fairy on someone owning to their power. He had many of the customers he tattooed with fairies die in unrelated and improbable accidents, what he was sure were the fairies finding a way to escape from being trapped in skin.

Emily got four black bars tattooed to her back owing to this intent:

My father always wanted a tattoo. For him, it was the ultimate wearable artwork. He toyed with water lilies and faces but in the end he died without bringing his ideas to fruition. I think he died before a lot of his dreams were realized. He once said he wanted 4 black bars across his wrist to symbolize his family. Me, my mom, himself and my sister. These are now my four bars. When I was younger I told him I wanted the Korean word for dream put on my back. In his ineffable way he began to sing Bob Dylan and doodle. Several minutes later I had a tattoo designed by my father who reminds me to always dream. Today I regain my dream after a year of caring for my father as he died. Today, I earn my stripes and carry my father with me.

I cried for this intent, crying more as I held her hand and the bars were drawn. She wanted them thicker initially, but agreed instantly when the artist - Gordon - began speaking of the interplay of negative space, invoking terms her father would have used. She squeezed my hand and gasped, "You promised you would always be there." She is speaking to me, not her father, though she does not remember all of the things she has said even after she is told later. She sighed and sobbed as though the needle where tattooing her unconscious mind and not her back. Is it the pain that transforms or the attachment released?

Afterward, Orien gave Emily his pouch of tobacco to throw on the bonfire. He was so moved by Emily's pain, witnessing clips of it while it happened and a glut of it here, that he said he was finally giving up smoking. If he wanted to smoke a cigarette, he would have to call Emily and explain why that cigarette was necessary. He keeps to this until he leaves the festival, then forgets his promise. Sharon, another clan member, said the same; that this was the moment she needed to realize that cigarettes should no longer be a part of her life. She kept to this as far as we know and I like her the better for it.

Gordon did not want to charge her. It was evident in his face that this experience was too precious to dampen with monetary concerns for five minute's work. She insisted and he charged her the "freckle price," the amount it costs for the needle to touch you once. In addition, she gave him a bag of porcupine quills she had purchased. Tattooing is more than simply what these two artists do for their livelihood, it is a spiritual act and a gift is implicitly required for the transformation. Emily did not know why they would need porcupine quills, but felt drawn to them. Gordon looked at them for a moment and announced with a broad grin that their fetishistic mascot Marcus would be getting whiskers.
Get it? Marcus. Mark-Us. High-larious.

We take care of the artists, because they are our artists, an extension of our clan. When they were done for the night, having worked well past the designated meal times, Emily and I brought them heaping plates of caribou meat, apples, and tortellini salad from our campground that they appreciatively devour.

Later, Emily came to me and, tears rolling down her cheeks, told me that it wasn't all better. All of her issues with her father are still there and, while she loves her tattoo, it did not bring swift resolution.

I touched her chin, the soothing gesture of someone deeply in love. "This is just the surgery, M. You've been cut open and sewn back up, but you still have a lot of healing to do before you can walk right."

She nodded, impressed with my insight. "You are really smart sometimes."

I had been getting a lot of compliments during this festival. One morning, Emily and Orien were discussing me and he said that I was an amazing man, but amended this by saying, "But last year, he was just really great boy." This was a fair criticism; I feel I have grown more than I can vocalize in this past year, come even more into my skin, having not realized I was still out of it. What will next year bring?

Walking away from the tattooing tent with Orien, he confided, half joking, that he didn't want this to be "Orien's Crew" anymore. This was basically how the clan was addressed at the gathering and with good reason. It took no effort to see that we all deferred to him. He had the air of a reluctant leader and there was nothing he could do to hide it. Orien asked if he could just give them to me and have it be "Thomm's Crew."

"No, I don't think I could handle that. Too much responsibility," I joked. I was thinking specifically of the fact that I am not their exact flavor of the religion, Gardnarian to my eclectic Discordian Zen, though I didn't take his comment at face value. There would be much training before I could assume such a mantle and most of it would be training against which I would bristle. There are far better candidates already in training. I'm all well and good in their rigid circle, rules handed down through generations of hand recopied books, but I need to go home and have a chat with my plushie Anubis or cast a circle with my cell phone antenna for balance. My path is Shakespeare's fool; wacky and fun, but also the only person in the court with the freedom to call the king a putz if it comes to that. This is the case now, as my reply takes a slice of him, one I did not intend. Yet if I can accept that I act on divine impulse to appear at a certain place, I can likewise believe my offhanded remarks can have meaning beyond my initial intentions.

Emily was impressed when I related this interaction to her. I told her that he wasn't serious about passing anything down to me, that it was merely a comment, but her surprise was that he opened up to me in this way. I did not know that he was a particularly closed person, but took the compliment at it was intended.

That night, when the tattoo was completed long after midnight, Emily and I walked around the largely silent camp - save for the frenzied moans of a cavorting couple - and just talked. I would later mark this as the best part of the whole Free Spirit experience, this quiet union between us. Beyond all the words, rituals and clans, this is the real source of our magic.

We ended up at the pool, empty of skinny dippers for once. We dipped our feet into the pool rather than filling the vacuum left by the nude swimmers. Emily was freshly tattooed and it would be days before she would be able to submerge herself. The night was starry and in the distance we could hear the beat of drums, even at 3 in the morning. Emily said that she could see the sunrise coming over the horizon, but I concerned myself with the reflection of it in her eyes.

"I wonder what we must look like to people passing by," Emily mused, "If they think that we just met here."

"Do you think that they would guess we had been together for five years?"

"No, we are too cute together; they would never guess that."

Leaving the pool, we were confronted by drunken teenagers. Outside the festival, that sentence would likely be the preamble to a violent situation (for the teenagers, of course. Let's not forget on whose side the ninja is). Here, it was utterly lovely. They were sweet kids, though obviously hitting the bottle a bit too much. A girl with curly blonde hair complimented me several times on my hair and finally walked away. Though I don't advocate underage drunkenness (which is different than underage drinking), I quite appreciated the world in which these teenagers are safely drinking hard lemonade in public, calmly, and causing no trouble to anyone and expecting none in return.

Over dinner in the dining hall that night, a woman suddenly began having a seizure. The Pagans gathered around and watched, only Emily being useful by placing something under the woman's head to prevent further damage and then receding. The woman's friend warned us away, saying that she has seizures all the time and was fine. The woman did not stop seizing. 911 was called. I ate my salad and tried not to look, knowing that there was nothing I - or most of these people - could do for this woman. A room full of people who call themselves witches and healers and the only useful person was someone with a modicum of actual medical training.

The ambulance came and paramedics spent many minutes trying to stabilize this woman as she had four more seizures. I'm not sure how they delineated where one ended and the other began. I found out later that this woman had flat-lined in the dining hall while I was there and might not survive. I further was told that a member of my clan who is diabetic - the source of these seizures - was present when this same woman had a seizure that morning and offered to help her out. He was turned away as lacking medical training, just having a lifetime of dealing with this condition. I have no concept of why this woman was not promptly taken to a hospital that morning, why she was allowed to wander the campground for nine more hours, why she didn't leave when she had that first seizure or at least take better care to prevent another one. She may be dead now because common sense did not interject itself. No festival is worth your life.

Likewise, one of the communal clan children came down with a 103 fever and her mother stubbornly refused to take her daughter to the hospital. I was furious, much more so than with the seizing woman. If you want to endanger your own life, you are an idiot, but if you are hurting or allowing through inaction the harm of a child, you are dangerously stupid. The woman was eventually convinced and relented to leave the festival. I wish I had the slightest idea who she was.

When it got dark, one of Emily's clan members taught an informal class on sky watching. He had a sharp interest in astronomy and a powerful telescope, so he seemed a fine teacher. Then Emily informed me that he also had a doctoral degree in particle physics or something likewise impressive from Columbia University. This is a man who, to the best of my limited knowledge, earned his summer income from reading tarot cards at the Ren Faire, yet he has the sort of degree with which one can write one's own ticket. I love these moments where a person, previously two-dimensional background, becomes infinitely more detailed with the addition and integration of one little fact. Who is he, really?

He was thrilled to see Emily, as we missed him in our wandering the night before, and he introduced her to the smattering gathered in the field as a woman having the best visual acuity he had witnessed. I smiled and shrugged this off as a random compliment, something sweet but without merit, like stating your friend makes the finest rhubarb pie in three counties when they don't cook at all. He asked her to look in a direction and try to find Mercury. Emily stared for a moment and stated an exact direction. I squinted and stared, but I saw nothing. Emily did, indeed, have incredible visual acuity, proven as the telescope was trained upon that spot to reveal a planet. Granted, the planet was not as exciting at the giant swarms of black bugs at the top of every tree, undulating in twenty foot clouds of synchronization, but it delighted Emily to see. She told me how, when she was in the seventh grade, she was obsessed with astronomy. One of her happiest memories of that time was in realizing she could see the Pleiades without a telescope. It seems that, no matter how long I know her, she is still full of secrets and stories.

I stuck around until I got to witness Saturn's rings, the separation of which Emily had no trouble seeing, and I heard the night's entertainment playing in the pavilion. The band was called Telesma and was the love child of a rave and a gypsy encampment. Behind the small singer flashed various pictures, few of which seemed to correlate, but the effect was not marred by their randomness. I watched the audience dance, arms folded and analytical. This is my primary setting, the outside observer attaching metaphor and similes to the actions of strangers I will never meet. It is one of the reasons I am called Xen, a derivation of the Latin root for "outsider" as well as a homonym for the school of Mahayana Buddhism asserting that enlightenment can come through meditation and intuition rather than faith. I couldn't bring myself to dance, knowing that I would be considerable stiffer than the jerky people around me. They wouldn't notice or care, but I would. So I watched.

Some girls pulled glow sticks and luminescent balls out of bag and started playing with them in front of the stage. I would not realize until later that these girls were planted by the band, but that only slightly tarnished the fact that they were there at all. The atmosphere grew more festive and I suddenly decided that I probably could dance, that would be all right even if I was simply no good. Perhaps it was the subtle influence of the moldavite set star of muses I acquired that day (as I told Emily, giving me a star of the muses is like giving a coke fiend a Jolt Cola. It's just a little more stimulation than was strictly needed). Polyhymnia, the muse of dance and music, convinced me to I move as best I could, drawing no particular positive or negative attention as I watched Orien Rose integrate herself among the glow stick dancers.

When the song ended, a girl moved away from the front of the stage. Touching the shoulder of one, I said simply, "Thank you." I didn't feel the need to tell her why she was owed thanks and she didn't ask, her dark eyes light with appreciation. I later thanked the other one, an elfin girl with blonde pigtails, telling her that I appreciate what she had done. She grinned and told me she appreciated me as well, handing me glow sticks, one of which I attached to Orien Rose. But for them, I would not have danced and I decided in that moment that it was ridiculous not to tell people that I appreciated something they were doing. If I am going to largely ignore the pulse of conventional social mores, why should I obey the one telling me to keep to myself and not interrupt strangers with my thanks? I see no reason to abide that societal drive toward unappreciative rudeness. Of course, the immediate urge was to overdo it, to thank everyone for everything and make up for lost time in a setting with the least potential for negative consequences, but I limited it to those girls.

As Telesma began another song and I convinced myself I still wanted to dance, I saw Emily suddenly arrive. When I asked why she was there, she led me outside, saying, "I was up there watching the stars and I put out my hand to see if my father would take it and... he wasn't there. I don't just mean in that moment. He wasn't there. And I was alone. I went to my tent and I was crying and I saw Dave and he hugged me, and I saw Karen and she hugged me, and I saw Pixie and he hugged me. Karen waited a moment and said that I radiated more than anyone she had ever met. And I came down here to find you. And everyone was here."

I held her close to me as she said this, her tear moistening my bare shoulder, and appreciated her revelation. She lost a member of one family, but she has an even greater one and truly never need feel alone.

We made our way to the fire as this was our last night and there needed to be amazing drumming. I was still giddy from my attempt at dancing and that I found a lesson to take away from this festival and danced around the fire. In essence, this is merely walking around the bonfire, though gyrating improvisation was fine. Orien was impressed at my bravery in doing this, at putting myself in the focal point of the throng surrounding the fire. He found it uncharacteristic of me, though I admit to wandering around the fire only a few times before seeking Emily out, her heavy drum between her legs.

We packed up the next morning, leaving behind only a tent stake embedded in a root. Last year, Dives Dives and I left the moment we were packed up, eager for the ride. This year, long after we were packed, we stuck around as everyone else dismantled their tents. Once done, we gathered in a circle. I was apprehensive at first, not knowing what to say. Emily spoke of how she had a lot of work to do before Free Spirit next year and, if she accomplishes what she needs to, she will have angel wings tattooed to her back. When the time to speak came to me, I said that I felt more a part of this clan than ever before and nothing more. I am not a Gardnarian, nor do I intend to be, but these are my people too; I am not exclusively there as an extension of Emily. When the literal and metaphor talking stick returned to Orien, he said that after much soul searching and my cutting remark, he has decided that he will pass ownership of the group down to his daughter, Orien Rose. At present, this is a baffling concept as she is a hyperactive child of no more than eight years, so I hope he intends to stick around for at least twelve years, if not much longer.

We packed everything into our respective cars and pulled away, everyone making humorless jokes about just staying here and forgetting outside concerns, forming an egalitarian collective as though the apocalypse raged outside and we were safe in the mountains. But we keep driving, leaving Camp Ramblewood to a bevy of lesbian bikers who come in after us every year. It isn't ours to keep. Emily laments that she doesn't think that she can bring the change of Free Spirit back home with her, but I assure her that I brought a lot of Ziploc bags.

We ate a final breakfast together in a Waffle House, a regional chain that would be crushed by the IHOP Loyalists north of the Mason Dixie Line, and realize that we are no longer in a place where we can walk around crying and be understood. It has been said that Paganism is a religion of broken people, but I think all people are cracked in some way. We are a religion of healing people.

Soon in Xenology: Summer Institute for the Gifted. Israel.

last watched: Freaks
reading: Snow Crash
listening: Jill Sobule

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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