Fiction

Breathing Deeply at Beltane

Celibate since Yule, red-haired Passionata breaks out on May Eve!

 

 

Oh, do not tell the priests of our art
For they would call it sin
But we shall be in the woods all night
A-conjuring summer in.

Gerald Gardner’s version of a Rudyard Kipling poem.

Emerging from the shower with the towel wrapped round her like a sarong, Passionata entered her bedroom and looked at herself in the long mirror.

Her reflection showed a young woman with eyes as green and shining as spring leaves. The gleaming auburn hair secured in a knot on top of her head would soon be loosened to tumble past her shoulders.

And as she looked, her lips curved in a smile of triumph. She’d done it!

Unbelievably, she had lived a celibate life from Yule until now. At Yule her Circle sister Arielle had fallen off her chair laughing at the idea of Passionata’s being celibate for so long, but she had defied everyone’s expectations, including her own.

Tonight the tri-state Beltane ritual would take place in Briarcliff Park. Covens from Maryland, Washington, DC, and even staid old Virginia would meet to celebrate the point on the Wheel of the Year that marked the beginning of summer.

She dropped the towel and reached for the dress hanging in the closet. Made of green velvet and Spandex, it had a deeply cut V-neck, three-quarter-length sleeves, and a fitted bodice. Past the hips the skirt flared into gores, ending at mid-calf. Passionata dropped the dress over her head, slid her arms into the sleeves, and tugged the rest of the dress over her bare skin. No need for underwear.

Not tonight.

_________________________

The woods in Briarcliff Park were full of Witches: Witches sitting on tree limbs, dancing in a glade, laughing as they chased each other through the greenery. It was still daylight when Passionata arrived and began looking for people she knew.

Behind a large oak tree she saw a tall, dark-haired young man with a neat Van Dyke beard locked in a passionate embrace with a slightly shorter man with chestnut hair.

“Aidan and Kieran!” Passionata said, delighted. She stopped, arms akimbo, and surveyed them. “Look at you—married six months and you still can’t keep your eyes or your hands off each other!”

Aidan disentangled himself from the blushing Kieran and smiled back at her. “Just getting into the spirit of Beltane, you know.”

“It’s great to see you guys again,” Passionata said. “Haven’t seen much of you at all since you got married and moved to Maryland.”

“Marry-land,” Kieran said, and chuckled.

“You’ll be seeing a lot more of us from now on,” Aidan said, pretending to pull off his shirt.

“Oh, get along with you! Talk to you later!”

She lifted a hand in farewell and continued on her way. Fairwynd and Robin Elfsong, strolling toward her hand in hand, were evidently more than friends nowadays, she noticed. Her new Circle sister, Brianna Hestia, was talking to some of the drummers just taking their places at one side of the fire circle.

Passionata made her way toward Brianna, admiring her from a distance. What courage it took for Brianna Hestia to assume her rightful persona and go out to face the world every day–a world that would tolerate her at best, mock her or subject her to violence at worst, simply because she was transgender. This afternoon Brianna, in a yellow caftan embroidered with blue and green flowers, looked even more striking than usual.

But as she drew near two of the drummers engaged Brianna in animated conversation, so Passionata retreated. She’d catch up with her later. Who else was here?

In the picnic area of the clearing Lochdru of the Silver Tongue stood arm in arm with Oakwyse, his partner. The two were chatting with Cajun Papa, already sweating profusely as he stirred the Cajun Boil he was tending. Tantalizing aromas of coriander, allspice, cloves, and garlic sailed upward on wisps of steam from the cauldrons.

The drums began to beat, slowly at first, then faster as the dancers picked up the tempo. Passionata gave a happy skip; she loved dancing to the drums. Looking around she could see people beginning to circle around the balefire, already laid with nine different kinds of wood, waiting to be lighted by the high priestess and high priest.

Looking at the dancers to see if she knew any of them, she noticed with a quickening of her pulse that Sylvan was dancing with Elspeth Winterborn.

‘Two tall blond Vikings,” Passionata thought crossly, regretting her own five feet four inches. Elspeth was wearing her hair loose tonight so it flowed in a flaxen sheet down her back. Sylvan’s shoulder-length blond hair was drawn back from his face into a queue tied with a green ribbon.

She knew it was pointless to be jealous of Elspeth, whose romantic inclinations did not lie with men. Sylvan, however, aroused Passionata’s interest. She’d heard through the Pagan grapevine about the breakup with Ariane right after Yule. After five years together, they’d apparently gone their separate ways—Ariane to pursue a life of beauty, balance, and delight in Vermont, Sylvan to his previous bachelor existence.

The drums beat faster, infusing the dancers with excitement. As the drumbeat echoed the beat of her heart, Passionata felt the power of Aphrodite flowing though her. Faster and faster she whirled to the changing rhythm, noticing vaguely the interested look in the eyes of her fellow dancers as they watched her progress around the fire circle.

And then, above the throbbing of the drumbeat, Passionata heard the high, thin, inhuman voices of the drums themselves as they began to sing. They sang of Earth power and sex magick; of moist, fertile soil that received sun, seed, and rain and transformed them into new life; of passion that burned through blood and bone, skin and muscle, to fuse the Two into the One.

Sylvan, she saw, was still dancing near Elspeth. It was time to stop that nonsense.

Passionata approached him with her arms raised gracefully above her head as she performed the side-to-side chest slides she’d learned in belly dancing class, followed by a choo-choo shimmy. 

He looked surprised at first, but then she saw the gleam in his eyes as the corners of his mouth quirked upward. As Passionata danced closer she saw that his eyes were gray–not the cold gray of a storm-tossed lake under a winter sky, but the warm gray of summer rain clouds.

She was excited that he was noticing her. Could he read the message in her eyes? He certainly seemed to be responding, dancing closer to her, holding her eyes with his gaze, lips parted as if he were about to speak. The other dancers swirled around them, their bright robes fluttering in the breeze. Somewhere sandalwood incense was burning, adding its scent to the air that carried the aroma of freshly mown grass.

The sound of the drums slowed, then stopped altogether. People stood, waiting and watching expectantly as Oakwyse, the officiating High Priestess and Lochdru, the High Priest, walked up to Passionata and Sylvan.

“Behold, Queen of the May,” Oakwyse intoned in her thrilling voice as she placed a circlet of colorful fresh flowers on Passionata’s head.

“Behold, King of the Forest,” Lochdru said in his deeper tones as he carefully set a headdress of antlers on Sylvan’s head.

As Passionata and Sylvan looked at each other in delight, Lochdru put a hand on Sylvan’s elbow. “Come with me.”

He led Sylvan to the other side of the fire circle so they were standing opposite Passionata and Oakwyse.

“My queen, you must let him chase you,” Oakwyse whispered. “Remember, you want to be caught, you want to make love with the King of the Forest more than anything! Only by making love with him will you ensure the success of the harvest. You just want him to work a bit, first.”

“Understood,” Passionata said, hardly able to breathe for excitement. To be chosen Queen of the May was a great honor.

“He’ll chase you three times deosil around the fire circle,” Oakwyse said in a low voice, “and the third time you must let him catch you.”

Turning to face the others around the circle, she said, “All hail the Queen of the May!”

“Hail, Queen of the May!” the Witches responded.

Across the balefire Lochdru announced in ringing tones, “All hail the King of the Forest!”

“Hail, King of the Forest!”

Oakwyse began to speak. “Belenos the Shining God has blessed the Earth with his presence once more. We celebrate His return by lighting the bel-fire, or balefire, which contains the nine sacred woods. Now the Earth has awakened to her powers; the fertile fields wait for us to plant the seeds that will ripen into the harvest, just as our foremothers and forefathers planted in ages past. Tonight we celebrate the season of lusty life, of love and passion, as the fire of Beltane burns in our veins!”

Lochdru stepped forward to light the balefire. As the first thin gray spirals of smoke rose from the stack of birch, oak, hazel, rowan, fir, hawthorne, willow, apple, and vine, he spoke in his sonorous voice.

“The fire of passion grows within us even as the fire grows stronger. We know that we, Earth’s children are fertile, even as She is. Tonight we salute the King of the Forest, He who is known as Herne, the Green Man, or as Pan or Cernunnos. Tonight he will chase and capture the Queen of the May, She who is called also Cerridwen, Aphrodite, or Venus. She is the Goddess, She is the Earth.”

By this time Sylvan was trying to break free of Aidan and Kieran, who were restraining him on either side, while on the other side of the balefire Passionata was trying to shake off the restraining hands of Elspeth and Brianna Hestia.

“Let the chase begin! Bring fertility to the fields!” Lochdru boomed.

The drums began again as Passionata broke free to begin circling the balefire, weaving in and out of the Witches ranged around the fire circle. Three times she circled as the drums beat faster and faster, until finally, breathless and laughing, she allowed herself to be captured by the King of the Forest. They stood side by side near the fire circle. The drums stopped immediately and the air was still, almost silent except for the crackle and hiss of the flames.

Sylvan faced Passionata, speaking in a resonant voice:

“I am the stag who roars at dusk and ruts at dawn
I am the king oak who carries the seeds of growth
In perfect love and perfect trust we will create new life.”

Passionata answered, letting her words ring out through the glade:

“I am the Earth, I am the womb, in whom life grows each season
The sun is my Bel-fire, the rain my blood, the wind my breath,
In perfect love and perfect trust we will create new life.”

Lochdru handed Sylvan the athame; Oakwyse handed Passionata the chalice full of water.

No sound was heard except the crackling of the balefire and the faint, sleepy calls of the birds.

Lochdru of the Silver Tongue intoned,

“Chalice to athame as Goddess to God
Behold the magick as Two become One!”

Cheers broke out as slowly, Sylvan lowered the athame into the chalice, and as slowly, raised it again.

“The land has been blessed! Good harvest, all!” Oakwyse called out.

“Good harvest, good harvest!” the others responded.

Under cover of the cheering, Sylvan spoke in Passionata’s ear. “Will you do the real Great Rite with me, later?”

“Yes,” she breathed, “yes, I will.”

The gray eyes looking into hers lit up like sunlight shining through rain.

The sound of a gong being struck with deliberate slowness rang through the drumming, which had begun again, softly.

Cajun Papa, standing just outside the fire circle, bawled, “Are you Witches ready to eat mah food?” Under the bandanna tied round his head his ruddy face gleamed with moisture; even his beard held drops of sweat.

Cheers went up again. “Hail, Cajun Papa! Let’s eat! Hail, the feasting!”

The drummers rose to their feet, stretched, and followed the others out to the long trestle tables. Walking hand in hand, Passionata and Sylvan made their way toward the picnic area. Cajun Papa stood by the steaming cauldrons, plunging a trident—no, now that she looked more closely, Passionata saw that it was more like a garden rake—into the cauldron and flinging rakefuls of Cajun shrimp, corn on the cob, and potatoes onto the newspaper-covered tables.

Lochdru, standing nearby, beckoned to Sylvan.

“I’d better see what he wants,” Sylvan said. “Why don’t you find a place for us to sit, and then I’ll get the drinks.”

“Okay,” Passionata said. She wandered past the table of Cajun Shrimp Boil to see what was on the other tables and saw Ceres Vegetina presiding over one of them.

“Hail, Queen of the May!” she said. “Look what Cajun Papa has provided for us vegans!” She pointed to the various items. “Beltane sorrel soup, oatcakes, springtime quiche, strawberry and spinach salad. And if you’re still hungry after that, we have vegan chocolate cupcakes, tricolor grapes, and glazed pecans. What’s your fancy?”

“It looks delicious,” Passionata said vaguely. “I’ll have an oatcake, thanks.”

Ceres handed her one, then turned to serve someone else.

Half in trance, Passionata passed on to the next table. She wanted only one thing and it wasn’t food. One of Cajun Papa’s helpers had labeled all the dishes neatly: Jambalaya; Dirty Rice; Spring Lettuce Salad; Beltane Marigold Custard; Tante Linda’s Fig Cake.

Sylvan suddenly appeared at her side. “What do you think, there was a May bowl, so I’ve brought back a glass for each of us. Shall we sit here?”

The table seemed rather crowded, but people were willing to move down to accommodate the royal couple. Passionata took the glasses of May wine and sat down while Sylvan went off to get the food.

It was still light when he returned with the plates although the sky had turned pale green as the sun began to sink behind the trees.

Passionata took a sip of the May wine. It tasted of the dried woodruff that had steeped in it all night, a sweet vanilla taste.

Sylvan, seated opposite her, reached across the table, neatly abstracting her wineglass from her hand. Looking into her eyes, he sang one line of an old song:

“I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink your sweet wine…”

With two fingers he lifted one of the strawberries out of the glass by its stem and licked it, never taking his eyes from hers. Then he opened his mouth and poured a few drops of May wine on his tongue.

So transfixed was Passionata that all the love songs she’d ever heard fled from her brain, but Shakespeare was still her friend. After all, she didn’t teach high school English for nothing. She leaned across the table toward him and said,

“One half of me is yours, the other half yours
Mine own, I would say; but if mine, then yours
And so, all yours.”


She saw his eyes widen in recognition of the quote, saw a smile of appreciation forming on his well-shaped mouth.

Passionata took one bite of Jambalaya, one bite of custard, and laid her spoon down. Sylvan, she saw, had left half his food untasted. His eyes searched her face and he lifted one eyebrow.

She nodded, stood up. Sylvan rose to his feet, came around the end of the table to take her hand and began steering her around the picnic tables, past the balefire, toward a grove of trees. In the gathering dusk they almost bumped into Elspeth and Brianna Hestia, who stood with their arms wrapped around each other, lips locked.

As they neared the grove Passionata could just make out a large white cardboard sign affixed to a stake in the ground. The sign read, “Reserved for the Queen of the May and the King of the Forest.”

Lochdru was standing just outside the grove, his white Druid robes barely visible in the dusk. He bowed as they approached.

“Welcome.”

“Thank you,” Sylvan said. Lochdru moved some distance away as Sylvan led Passionata into the grove.

In the dim light Passionata saw a clearing, almost like a sacred circle of grass surrounded by trees and bushes.

I, who am the beauty of the green earth, and the white Moon among the stars…

While Sylvan removed his cloak and spread it on the grass, Passionata removed her circlet of flowers, laying it down carefully. She tugged her dress over her head, dropped it beside the circlet, and heeled off her shoes.

Sylvan took off his antler headdress, removed the tie from his hair, discarded his tunic, stepped out of his trousers and moccasins.

He dropped to his knees, looked up at her, and said, “Blessed are thy feet, which have brought Thee in these ways.” He crouched, kissed her left foot, then her right.

Looking up at her again, he said, “Blessed are thy knees, which shall kneel at the sacred altar.”

When he kissed her left knee, then her right, Passionata shuddered with delight and longing.

“Blessed be thy womb, without which we would not be,” Sylvan said, and Passionata closed her eyes as desire burned through her.

Sylvan rose to his feet. “Blessed be thy breasts, formed in beauty and in strength.” He kissed each breast while Passionata held her breath.

“Blessed be thy lips, that shall utter the Sacred Names.”

Lightly he touched her lips with his own. Then they drew apart a little so that Passionata in her turn could kneel to give him the five-fold kiss.

After that their lips met briefly again and they held each other close as the spring night cooled rapidly around their hot skin. The woods were alive with the small sounds of nature—the twitters of the birds preparing to sleep, the rustling of small mammals scurrying through the undergrowth.

Passionata heard Sylvan’s voice in her ear, husky with emotion. “Thou art Goddess.”

Her reply was heartfelt. “Thou art God.”

When their lips met again in a deeper kiss, Sylvan gently lowered her to the ground.

Even through the woolen cloak the grass felt cool and springy against the bare skin of her back. Sylvan’s hair swung forward softly, brushing against her face.

“All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals…”

Now there was no time to breathe, no time to think, nothing existed but this, the Great Rite, the scents of woodsmoke, grass, and wild honeysuckle, the sensations of warm lips, hot skin, magickal hands, the fusion of hot seed and hungry earth, waiting to transform seed into life and fruit. No sounds but those of laughter in the woods, the throbbing of the nearby drums, the soft cries of The Two as they became The One.

“Thou art Goddess!”

“Thou art God!”

The End

From The Deer at Lammas Tide by D. M. Read

Jolyon–Part II

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Flung back in time to the Minoan Crete of 1450 BC, can Fiona adjust to such a different world?

“Put your arms around me and hold on as tightly as you can,” Jolyon said. He stepped closer until just a breath separated us. I did as he instructed. A vast shudder rippled through us, after which utter blackness descended and I knew nothing more.

When I regained consciousness, very slowly, I became aware through closed eyelids that it was daylight. Gradually the realization dawned that I was lying down, covered by a warm blanket, and that I could hear voices. Two of the voices were male, speaking English. A third voice sounded feminine and the language was not English.

Jolyon

knossos-palace

After graduation a visit to Knossos beckoned Fiona—but little did she guess where it would lead!

 

I noticed him because he was always alone.

And in a country where most people are dark-haired and dark-eyed, he stood out because of his blond ponytail and gray eyes. Only the shape of his eyes belonged to Crete—large, almond-shaped, compelling.

The Invisibility Factor

The girl was snatched before their eyes—why didn’t the police respond to the women’s calls?

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It all happened so fast.

One minute the young girl in the pale pink track suit, eyes cast down as she texted on her cellphone, was walking down the opposite side of the street from where Charmiele sat on her front porch working on her laptop; the next minute, a young man jumped out of a black SUV with darkened windows that rolled to a stop behind the girl, and grabbed her phone. Thirty seconds later another man jumped out of the SUV and helped him bundle the girl into the vehicle.

When the support staff quits, you have to hire…

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The law office of Reed, Wright, Pray & Singh was in a quandary: not from lack of business, which was in fact burgeoning, but from lack of help.

The simple fact was that the young, the middle-aged, and the early elderly had been promised free, safe passage to Luna City, the new moon colony, so there was no one left to perform the support tasks of a law office.

“Free passage to the moon, free apartments for life, a $50,000 signing bonus—how can we compete with that?” Arthur Reed, the senior partner, asked in a morning meeting of the firm’s partners. He was grumpy from pulling an all-nighter to prepare a legal brief.

“We can’t. We’ll have to rely on a temp service. Surely they have people who can staff our office,” Ronald Wright said.

Lettice Pray nodded agreement and drank the rest of her coffee; Kuldip Singh looked at the others and said, “I will contact the agency this very morning to get the people we need.”

However, in the conference room at lunchtime he reported that his efforts had failed. “There is no one, but no one, available,” he said. “Everyone’s gone to the moon.”

Pray looked up from her peanut butter-and-banana on whole wheat and said, “I have an idea. No, I’m not going to tell you what it is until I’ve sounded out the parties concerned. However, if I’m successful we may have the solution to our problem.”

___________

Collette

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“Excuse me, but do you have any more brochures on prison reform?”

Darren’s head was under the cloth that hung from the table in his booth at the town fair, so he stuck up a hand high enough so the visitor could see it. “Be right with you, okay?” Even to him, his voice sounded muffled.

Having extracted a pile of the brochures he wanted to replenish, he groped rightward to the box in which the prison reform brochures were kept and grabbed a few. Then he stood up and looked straight into the face of the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen.

In fact, she was probably the most beautiful woman in the world. Slim and graceful, she appeared to be just a few inches over five feet. Her dark brown afro hugged her beautifully shaped head. Bright brown eyes, filled with amusement; long, long black eyelashes; smooth café-au-lait skin, and red lips pressed together. She looked as if she would burst out laughing at any moment.

Aware that he looked like the nation’s prize idiot, Darren stammered, “H-how can I help you?”

“Prison reform brochures,” she repeated and could barely conceal a smile as he handed them to her.

“D-do you need anything else?” Wildly, he looked around the booth, hoping to find something that would tempt her to linger, to chat.

“No, thank you,” she said firmly, “I have what I need. Good day.”

She turned and began to walk off. She mustn’t get away! Hardly aware of what he was doing, Darren left the booth and called after her. “Wait!”

She turned. “Yes?” Her tone was cold.

“May I ask you a question?”

She looked bored. “If you must.”

He took a deep breath. “How would you rate my chances of taking you out to dinner next week?”

Her eyes widened. “That’s not at all what I expected!”

“What did you expect?”

“I thought you’d say something like, ‘Have you ever dated a white guy’ or a more vulgar variant thereof.”

Darren’s lips tightened. “I would never say anything vulgar to you or to any woman.”

“Glad to hear it,” she said, and turned to walk away.

“Wait,” he called out. “Is there anything I can do to convince you I’m a nice guy who just wants to know you better?”

She half-turned, appearing to consider this for a moment, then shook her head. “No, not really.”

Chastened, he watched her walk away. He’d never get to know her. She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever met and he’d never get to know what made her tick, what kind of music she liked, whether she enjoyed long walks in the woods.

Please, Goddess, don’t let her go out of my life!

She’d proceeded a few yards when she suddenly paused. Turned. Walked back until she stood just a few feet away.

“You know, I don’t have time for most white guys, but I’m getting a vibe from you that says—well, never mind what it says. So…yes. There is something you could do to prove you’re serious.”

“Anything!”

“Come to dinner at my grandmother’s house on Sunday.”

Despair turned to delight in seconds. “I accept with pleasure!”

She pulled a small notebook from her handbag, wrote something on it, and handed it to him. He scanned it rapidly, noting the address, the phone number, and the date and time he’d be expected. “My name’s Darren Peterson,” he said. “And here’s my number, in case you need it.”

She entered it in her mobile. “Thanks. See you Sunday.”

“Oh, by the way,” Darren called after her as she began to walk away again, “what’s your name?”

She looked back at him over her shoulder. “Collette.”


The Looming of Bastet

Black, beautiful, and wild described Pombagira Rodriguez. Her promiscuous nature would have doomed her to perpetual pregnancy if it hadn’t been for a certain medical procedure a year ago; as it was, she was known for staying out all night and then gaining access to the house by climbing a tree and entering through a partly open window.

“She’s a second-story cat,” Celine Rodriguez would say with a sigh. “What a naughty girl!”

“You treat that cat as if she were your child,” people would say from time to time. “What a pity you never had children of your own.”

“I teach, I blog, I write. I have brain-children, and I labor just as hard bringing them into the world as women who give birth to physical children,” Celine would reply. She was referring to intensity of effort, not physical discomfort, although she did sometimes have to retire to her bed with headaches.

Happily, Pombagira and the dogs, Joel Collie and Eleanor Labrador, were available for the cuddles that books, posts, and lectures couldn’t supply.

___________________

Five minutes before the knock sounded on the front door, Celine gazed out the window at the rain blowing through the front yard. “Remind me again why we got married in October?”

“Because we got a fifty percent discount on a last-minute deal for a cruise to the Bahamas,” Eduardo reminded her. “We decided to make that our honeymoon. Stop worrying—the weather forecast says the rain will stop at six o’clock. We can still go out to dinner to celebrate our anniversary.”

“And that will be the only good thing about this gloomy fall Saturday,” Celine said.

But she was wrong, because the knock on the front door turned out to be the United Parcel Service delivering a package addressed to her and Eduardo.

“Who’s it from, Celine?”

“It’s from my sister priestess Serafina,” Celine said. “How nice of her!”

“You open it, dear,” Eduardo said, handing her the box cutter. “Knowing her, it could be anything.”

Eagerly Celine undid the wrappings, slit open the seams of the box, opened it, and gasped in delight.

Bastet

“It’s Bastet! How beautiful!”

Twenty women danced around the fire that night but only one would be…

 

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It was late summer again, time for the yearly gathering on Serafina’s property. This year the gathering would fall on Celine’s birthday, the first of August. As she packed her large beach bag she shivered in anticipatory delight—she looked forward to this occasion all year.

Into the bag went a flashlight, sunscreen, a beach towel, flip-flops, and a sun visor. No book would be necessary for the sunbathing part of the day, because the company would be so congenial she’d spend her time chatting. She added a pashmina—the evening was always chilly with the breeze coming off the water—and filled her water bottle. She was ready.

The large cooler filled with ice and soft drinks was already in the trunk of her car, as were the fruit and crackers she was bringing for snacks. Serafina, of course, would be cooking up a storm of both Puerto Rican and African-American specialties. Celine smiled as she thought of the arroz con gandules, rice with pigeon peas, that was her friend’s signature dish. She was planning to eat lightly all day so she could give the evening feast the attention it deserved.

The hour-long drive passed pleasantly as Celine, always analytical, contemplated why this yearly celebration meant so much to her. For one thing, no men would be present. There would be no need to appear deferential to male sensibilities, no need for the women present to refrain from speaking their truths around the fire circle: everyone could say whatever she damn well pleased. The best part of being with other women, Celine thought, was that one didn’t have to explain anything. Women already knew.

She smiled again as she drove on and the miles ticked away on the odometer.

Tashkent Auset was also looking forward to the gathering. Awakened as usual by cockrow, she had risen with the dawn, gone out to feed the roosters, hens, and goats, and prepared breakfast for herself and the children. Later she dropped off six-year-old Nico and three-year-old Yana at her mother’s house before setting out on her journey to Serafina’s beach property.

Jannah, previously her divorce lawyer and now her friend, had told her a great deal about the gatherings of previous years. “Only women of color attend,” Jannah said. “No white people, no men. We can be ourselves.”

It sounded wonderful to Tashkent Auset. Ordinarily shy in company because she lacked money, social position, and advanced degrees, she knew she’d feel comfortable even though most of the women present would be strangers to her. Among other women of color there would be no one to disparage her dark skin, her homemade clothes, her lack of cosmetics. There would be no need to be careful of what she said for fear of offending white people’s feelings or disturbing their comfortable stereotypes.

Driving the rattletrap car she’d acquired after the divorce,Tashkent Auset sang as she drove to the gathering place. She hoped the other women would like the brownies she was bringing to the feast.

An hour earlier Jannah, too, had set off in her sleek little Morris Minor to Serafina’s place. In the trunk of her car was a cooler full of fried chicken—a cliché, Jannah thought dispassionately, but nonetheless delicious for all that—and a blueberry cake she’d made because it traveled well and required no messy frosting that would melt in the heat. She was looking forward to seeing the people she knew would be there—Celine, Serafina, and Tashkent Auset, for instance—and women she didn’t even know yet. It had been a tiring year so far, with one difficult case after another, but this weekend would be her time to swim, eat, dance, and thoroughly enjoy herself.

____________________